According to the Office of National Statistics, if Mozart’s Susanna and Figaro had married in Wales or England in 2012 there would have been a forty-two percent chance of their marriage ending in divorce. Two hundred and thirty-four years on from the premiere of Le Nozze di Figaro it is hard to find a work of art today that champions the concept of marriage as key to social stability and our wellbeing in the same way. Indeed, when Welsh National Opera recently commissioned a sequel to Mozart’s opera the result was Figaro Gets a Divorce, a bittersweet fantasy about what happens next to Mozart’s characters as they struggle with midlife crises against a backdrop of revolution and class war.
Mozart and Da Ponte celebrate the positive social and ethical role marriage plays in the lives of the opera’s characters, building on key progressive Enlightenment ideas, but never denying the complexity of human interaction and motivation. The opera ends with a great transcendent hymn to happiness based around a loving, trusting and pragmatic understanding of human relationships. The two central couples, Susanna and Figaro, the Countess and the Count, have gained enough self-knowledge during an action-packed, often painful day to look to the future with renewed hope and optimism.
The search for happiness on earth through human relationships is the conundrum that occupied many Enlightenment artists like Mozart. The reforming Habsburg Emperor Joseph II made his own contribution to this debate by passing a new piece of legislation in 1783 that confirmed marriage’s status as a civil contract while also legalising divorce for the first time in modern Europe. In other words, marriage became a contractual affair between two autonomous individuals rather than the result of religious duty. As Nicholas Till writes in his essential Mozart and the Enlightenment, “Figaro retraces the progression of relations in modern society from those based on pre-ordained status to those negotiated by contract.” Throughout Le Nozze di Figaro the characters are renegotiating the terms of their relationships, both emotionally and economically. In this way, they reach the end of the opera with their marriages intact and their roles newly defined.
Women in the opera use marriage as a tool for greater social mobility and freedom. Susanna and Figaro’s marriage wins them economic independence thanks to an unexpected dowry from Marcellina and Bartolo. The peasant girl Barbarina blackmails the Count and becomes engaged to Cherubino, her social superior. Bartolo meanwhile marries his old housekeeper, Marcellina. The women are the true revolutionaries of the piece in the way they use marriage to transcend the social and gender hierarchies of the time.
The Count also opposed social convention when marrying Rosina, an orphaned member of Seville’s bourgeoisie in the first play of Beaumarchais’s Figaro trilogy. But at the beginning of Le Nozze di Figaro their marriage is at a low ebb. The sexual spark in their relationship has gone out. The Count has become a serial philanderer. Yet Mozart makes clear in his music that he is far from happy. In the composer’s correspondence he was always dismissive of male restlessness and pleasure-seeking. Instead he valued “the blessed happiness of a deep and true affection” over “the pleasure of a transient, capricious infatuation”. This attitude towards marriage comes across clearly in Figaro.
Eroticism is a destabilising, ambiguous presence in the opera. Cherubino is perhaps an early study for Don Giovanni, wreaking havoc wherever he goes. The Countess cannot win the Count back with declarations of sentimental love like “Porgì amor”. She must take action, change the Count’s view of her and force him to understand the consequences of his own irresponsible actions. Following “Dove sono” she reinvents herself, writing Susanna’s love letter to the Count, wearing her servant’s clothes and meeting with her husband under the cover of night. Mozart’s music for their encounter is both painful and deeply romantic. The Countess maintains her composure and carries off the disguise. The long-lost chemistry with her husband is rekindled, albeit incognito. It is the Countess’s final extraordinary act of forgiveness that ultimately saves their marriage. The Count recognises his wrongdoing and the Countess’s true moral strength in the face of the misery he has inflicted on her. He asks for redemption and the Countess delivers it. Her music has a calm, celestial glow about it. The French writer Stendhal compares this ensemble to a church hymn of the most perfect beauty.
Yet Mozart and Da Ponte’s happy ending is man-made and not God-given. It is hard-won and based on a view of marriage as life’s most important action in determining personal happiness, growth and maturity, providing it is continually nurtured by mutual affection, shared moral values, a healthy dose of realism and the ability to forgive.