Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Toxic Masculinity and Gender Fluidity in Mozart and Da Ponte's "Le Nozze di Figaro"

Here in Vienna, I attended, last night, a performance of the new Barrie Kosky production of "Figaro". This is the second in a triptych of the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas he's doing for Vienna over three seasons. First was "Don Giovanni", which I saw this past January (but which premiered the previous season, in the midst of a pandemic lockdown). Next season will see "Così fan tutte".

Now, this isn't a review, or even an erudite commentary, but some random but hopefully interesting observations, riffing off Kosky's production. His stage settings (except in the final act) are fairly conventional, but the stage business, often involving protracted silences (even in the middle of recitatives), or ad libbed Italian dialogue in between scenes to act as a segue, is quite fascinating.

Of course, the Count is an exemplar of toxic masculinity -- a model, in some ways, for Don Giovanni and even for Don Alfonso in the successor operas. It was prescient of Peter Sellars to set his Regietheater production of "Figaro" in Trump Tower, with the Count a putative Trump -- long before he was known to anyone outside New York, where he was widely seen at the time as just another New York schnorrer.

Kosky's Count takes the implied sexual violence of the opera to another level. In the crucial second act finale, where he's just banished the Countess from his sight, he attempts to rape her, before the action resumes. Is he chastened at the end? Mozart' sublime music of reconciliation seems to say so, yet doubts linger in the whirlwind final chorus, which seems more about forgetting and having fun than moving on to another reality of social organization in which the Count's actions are contained in a moral order absent from the ancien régime (and, of course, turns to be absent from what followed).

How about Figaro? Here's an interesting tale. In his Act I aria, he expresses his disdain of the Count, suggesting he'll have the little Count dancing to his tune, and so forth. But this is as far as the Viennese censors would permit Mozart and Da Ponte to follow Beaumarchais's original French play. In Act IV, with Susanna apparently having deceived Figaro (she's not, she knows he's watching, she plays him to get revenge) by acceding to the Count's demands, he breaks out into a political speech in the play. But, this was a bridge too far for Vienna. So, the anti-monarchist screed is converted into a misogynistic rant, so ferocious, that it's hard to imagine Figaro ever viewing Susanna the same way, even when he learns the facts. And he, too, plays her in reverse, to get his revenge, before the reconciliation scene.

(I want to thank Philippe Sly -- a brilliant Leporello in the Vienna "Don Giovanni" by Kosky -- for encouraging me to read the Beaumarchais play in its original French and compare it to Da Ponte's very sophisticated adaptation into an Italian opera libretto -- pointing out to me in particular what could be said in French but had to be censored in Italian. This, by the way, sort of turns on its head the adage, as applied to the play/opera, that "what cannot be said can be sung". Actually, quite a lot was said in Paris that couldn't be sung in Vienna. Yet, it's incredible that the opera could be performed at all. Relatedly, it's fascinating to compare a sophisticated opera libretto by a serious poet and dramatist -- for Lorenzo da Ponte was one as much as Hugo von Hofmannsthal -- to an original source, especially if it's a nearly contemporary play. I've done this sort of comparison previously, comparing Oscar Wilde's original French text of his play "Salome" to the text set by Strauss. This is a comparatively simple exercise, as Strauss essentially set an abridged version of the Hedwig Lachmann translation of the play into German. So it's more a question of what had to be omitted for reasons of space -- it takes a lot longer to sing a line of text than to speak it -- than of what was adapted.)

And here's the crux, something I've written about before, the reconciliation scene between Figaro and Susanna just seems fake -- or, at least, banal. And this was surely the intention of the poet and the composer. After all, Susanna has just delivered one of the most ravishing arias in all of opera -- politely called a "bridal song" in old-fashioned program notes, really an invitation to sexual union with her lover, disguised in classical metaphor (I'll crown you with roses, and that sort of thing). Listen for the orgasm in the woodwinds. And her Act III duet with the Count bubbles over with sexual tension. Yet, this reconciliation is pat, quick, and deliberately formulaic -- preparing the requisite "happy ending". As often in Mozart, what lies beneath the surface can flip the surface reality. (Or, as Sergiu Celibidache puts it, somewhat more poetically, "There is a reality for every level of observation.")

As Ruggero Raimondi -- himself a great Mozartian, who sang both Figaro and the Count with distinction, and once sang in and directed the Mozart/Da Ponte triptych -- has said, the end of the opera represents the end of a great love affair, that between Figaro and Susanna. And Figaro's own toxic masculinity -- as evidenced by his raging misogyny -- is a principal reason.

The other fascinating aspect of Kosky's production is the portrayal of Cherubino, here sung and acted brilliantly by the young Austrian mezzo, Patricia Nolz. Baroque opera, of course, is replete with "travestito" (from the same Latin root that gives us our English word transvestite) roles. In Baroque opera, female roles were often sung by castrati -- castrated males with high voices. But that never enters into the libretto in any meaningful way. They're just women who are sung by men.

Mozart and Da Ponte take the ambivalence to an entirely new level. Cherubino, a young man sung by a woman, is a travestito role (sometimes politely called a "trousers" or "breeches" role in English) that bends fixed, binary gender identity in a way never before seen in opera. In Act II, for instance, you have a woman playing and dressed as a man who is then undressed and dressed again as a woman. And, as they dress her, Susanna jokes that he (she) has fairer skin than she herself does, that sort of in joke, where we know that she's a woman all along. There's plenty of sexual banter and teasing. 

(Don't forget that Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal took a leaf from Mozart here in "Der Rosenkavalier", exploiting the ambivalence of the travestito role of Octavian. More generally, there are parallels between the three female leads, in class terms and in many other ways. The bourgeois born Countess becomes the Marschallin, to the manner born. Susanna, a servant, becomes the newly ennobled bourgeois Sophie. Cherubino, of uncertain social standing, becomes the aristocratic (but poor?) scion, Octavian. There's an essay for another time.)

So who, then, is Cherubino? Conventionally, of course, he's just a man played by a woman. But Mozart and Da Ponte, through the ambiguity in text and music, invite us to blow apart this convenient binary. Cherubino is always described in, for lack of a better word, "effeminate" (in terms of an 18th century aesthetic) terms -- as in Figaro's aria ending Act I, in which he mocks the fashion plate Cherubino's chances of success in the army. (We know, from Beaumarchais's sequel, "La mere coupable", that he actually does die in battle somewhat later.) And in the music in which he's teased by Susanna and the Countess and elsewhere. Is Cherubino gay? Or bisexual? Or, could Cherubino be transsexual? Someone who's transitioned socially, if not medically, and who transitions back in Act II and Act III as part of the elaborate scheme to take revenge on the Count? Someone who makes a half hearted attempt to seduce the Countess (actually Susanna in disguise) in Act IV? Mozart and Da Ponte certainly don't deny the possibility. Whatever is the case, and having said which, the character's peculiar interest has been remarked on by writers through the ages -- including, famously, by Kierkegaard. 

If you accept the plausibility of the hypothesis, a sexually and/or gender fluid Cherubino, then Mozart and Da Ponte provide a commentary in 1786 that looks ahead 230 and more years to our present contestation, and politicization, of questions of sexual, and especially, gender identity. At the very least, a strict interpretation of the law in a raft of US states could mean that minors would be barred from attending a public performance of "Figaro", which would be classified as a "drag show" -- because, whether Cherubino is transsexual or not, he/she/they are, at a minimum, a transvestite.

Peter Sellars once said, and I'm paraphrasing, that for opera to be relevant for us today, it shouldn't be embalmed in a sort of tradition that turns into a costume drama -- the sort of period piece by Merchant/Ivory that you see at art houses or on Masterpiece Theater. Rather, whilst remaining true to the music and the words, opera must speak to our contemporary reality. Sellars's own productions, of Mozart and other composers, consistently strive to and achieve this ambition. Here in Vienna, Kosky manages the feat with his production of "Figaro" that I would urge you to see if you can.

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