Figaro explores territory that
many found worrisome when it was written in the
mid-1780s — the often contentious relationship
between the classes. That's why the original play by
Beaumarchais was banned by ruling authorities in
France, and why Mozart's opera made the Austrian
monarchy more than a little bit nervous. Both the
play and the opera clearly illuminate the
limitations of rank and privilege, showing that
common sense can readily overcome wealth and power,
and that genuine humility easily upstages
Beaumarchais’ play, The Marriage
of Figaro, is a sequel to his earlier play, The
Barber of Seville, (basis for Rossini’s opera) in
which a young nobleman named Almaviva won his lover,
Rosina, away from her lecherous guardian, Dr.
Bartolo — but only with considerable help from his
friend Figaro. As The Marriage of Figaro begins,
three years have passed. The young lovers are now
the Count and Countess Almaviva. Figaro is the
Count's personal valet, and he's engaged to marry
the Countess' maid, Susanna.
The story is set in Spain.
Figaro is jealous of the Count for his gallantry to
Susanna, his betrothed. The Count, sensing that the
page, Cherubino, is interested in the Countess,
seeks to get rid of Cherubino by ordering him off to
the wars. He is saved by Susanna, who disguises him
in female attire.
The Countess, Susanna, Figaro
and Cherubino conspire to punish the Count for his
infidelity. The latter suddenly appears at his
wife's door. Finding it locked, he demands an
entrance. Cherubino, alarmed, hides himself in a
closet and bars the door. When the Count goes after
a crowbar to break in the door, Cherubino leaps out
of the window, while Susanna takes his place.
Antonio, the gardener, comes in, furious that some
one has just thrown a man into his flower pots.
Figaro at once asserts that it was he who jumped. A
ludicrous side plot unfolds as Marcellina appears
with a contract of marriage signed by Figaro,
bringing Bartolo as a witness. Don Curzio declares
the contract valid. Figaro stalls by protesting that
he can't marry her because he's actually a nobleman,
stolen from his parents at birth. He displays a
distinctive birthmark on his arm. Marcellina
recognizes the mark, and nearly faints. It turns out
that Figaro is her and Bartolo’s long-lost
illegitimate son. Figaro is off the hook and he and
Susanna are free to be married at last. Bartolo and
Marcellina decide to make it a double wedding.
Acts Three and Four
That night, in the garden, the
servant girl, Barbarina, is searching for something
in the dark. Though she's barely a teenager, she has
already been the object of the Count's attentions.
Now she's acting as a courier between the Count and
her older cousin Susanna, who has just been married.
Figaro is convinced Susanna is plotting to betray
him, especially when he hears her nearby, singing
about her "lover" — though she's really singing
about Figaro. Things come to a head when the Count
finally shows up, eager for his tryst. First he
tries to seduce his wife, thinking she's Susanna.
Then, when he sees Figaro with a woman he thinks is
the Countess, he self-righteously accuses her of
infidelity. Susanna, still imitating the Countess,
begs the Count for forgiveness. He refuses. At that,
the Countess reveals herself, and the Count realizes
he is trapped. Humbled and repentant, it's his turn
to ask for pardon. The Countess generously embraces
him, and the opera ends with both couples