The fall season began in earnest yesterday evening as James Levine took the podium at the Met Opera to conduct a new production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro, a work that is not only of great musical importance (the standard operatic repertoire begins here) but also has a great deal of personal meaning for me. This was the very first opera I ever saw and provided me almost thirty years ago with my introduction to this fabulous genre I've since come to love so deeply. On that occasion as well it was Maestro Levine who conducted the work.
Great as Mozart's music is, credit for the success of Figaro should also be given to its superb librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. If it had not been for Da Ponte's adroit political maneuvering and his personal friendship with Emperor Joseph II, the work might never have been written at all and the world would have lost one of its greatest musical masterpieces. As it was, the opera marked the beginning of an all too brief collaboration between two consummate artists, a partnership that also later led to the composition of Don Giovanni and Così fan Tutte. The full story is told not only in Da Ponte's Memoirs but also in the excellent biography, Librettist of Venice, authored by Rodney Bolt. Both these works also debunk the myth that Joseph II had been strenuously opposed to the production of the opera just as he had earlier banned performances of the Beaumarchais play for having undermined the stature of the monarchy, a serious enough consideration in the age of the French Revolution.
More importantly, Figaro marked a revolution in the composition of opera. It was Da Ponte's genius to recognize that the then prevalent operatic form, opera seria, was no longer viable. A holdover from the Baroque period that had been used extensively throughout the eighteenth century by such composers as Gluck and Handel and even Mozart himself in Idomeneo, by the time Figaro was composed in 1786 the form's potential had been thoroughly exhausted and it had already grown archaic. The days when castrati dominated the stage in Metastasian works were clearly long since past. It was then that Da Ponte, while studying the libretto of La villanella rapita by Giovanni Bertati, began to see new possibilities in opera buffa, the comic form which up to then had been used in only the most lighthearted of works. Buffa was more in keeping with the spirit of the age in that it reflected the evolution of opera itself from a purely aristocratic entertainment to an art form to be enjoyed by a newly emerging educated middle class as well. To quote Rodney Bolt:
"Da Ponte began to pick up traces of a change that was infiltrating opera buffa. Serious elements entered these comedies, often in a parody of aloof opera seria characters. 'Serious', Da Ponte realized, need not necessarily mean 'solemn'. He saw the potential of weaving a reflective strand through the comic frivolity - a strand of more profound characterization, of more thought-provoking material than was usual in opera buffa. Bertati's script, especially, was a thunderclap, a libretto of revolutionary social criticism that worked precisely because of its buffo costume, making points which, had they appeared nakedly in a pamphlet, would have spelled serious trouble for the author."
The result is a triumphantly modern work that leaves far behind the affectations of a dissolute aristocracy even as it lampoons that class' insistence on its traditional privileges. Nowhere can this be seen so well as in the outright rejection by Figaro of the Count's wish to exercise his droit du seigneur with Susanna on her wedding night.
Yesterday evening's performance was extremely satisfying. According to the program notes, conductor Levine had already led 67 performances of the opera in the twenty year period between 1985 and 2005. He certainly knew the score, if not by heart, then well enough to bring out every nuance of Mozart's music. He and the orchestra well deserved the huge round of applause they received at the beginning of the second half. The cast itself, though, was not particularly distinguished and would have benefited from the inclusion of more experienced singers. Perhaps best of those appearing was Isabel Leonard as Cherubino.
This was a new production and that's always a cause for concern, especially in the last few years as the Met has come up with one oddity after another in its search for relevance. Here the opera was updated, without much reason, to the 1930's. (In an interview, producer Richard Eyre stated that he had been inspired by Jean Renoir's 1939 La Règle du jeu - a wonderfully sophisticated film that has always been among my cinematic favorites and whose plot was itself to an extent based on that of the opera - but I found the argument unconvincing.) The best that can be said of this production is that it was fairly unobtrusive. The set itself, at least what one could see of it (yes, it was very dark), resembled nothing so much as a Con Ed substation. I do applaud, however, the decision to have only one intermission in the four-act opera (whose running time was still approximately 3 hours 50 minutes). No matter what may be said of the singers' need to rest their voices, I've never understood the purpose of having a lengthy intermission after each act of a given work. It only damages the dramatic continuity and unnecessarily drags out the evening for the audience.