Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera is based on the play, La folle journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (completed in 1781, performed in 1784) by Pierre Beaumarchais, which was quite a controversial work. Written in 1781, it was banned in France by King Louis XVI, even though his wife Marie-Antoinette loved it. Louis was concerned about the play’s political message: the protagonist Figaro’s speeches suggested the aristocracy was corrupt, prone to abuses of power, and ultimately an illegitimate form of social organization. If that wasn’t enough, the play was also open to charges of immorality and licentiousness due to its sexual content. With all those ingredients in the mix, it is perhaps not surprising that when it was finally given a public performance in France in 1784, it was an enormous success and quickly became the most popular play of the 18th century.
The Marriage of Figaro is about four couples (the Count and Countess; Figaro and Susanna; Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina; and Cherubino and Barbarina) all trying to secure a combination of romantic satisfaction and financial security over the course of one hectic day. There are a lot of exits and entrances—doors, windows, and staircases see a lot of traffic—as well as cross-dressing, timely revelations, and misunderstanding, all kept at a fast and furious narrative pace.
Key to the plot is the so-called droit du seigneur, an ancient right that may never have legally existed that allowed the lord of the house to have sex with any of his female servants on their wedding night. Mozart and Da Ponte, following Beaumarchais, use this device to set the central conflict in motion: although the Count has supposedly surrendered his droit du seigneur, he makes continuous advances on Susanna, who is a maidservant in his household. In league with the Countess and Figaro, Susanna works to outwit the Count at every step and foils his attempts.
Figaro is quite probably the very first important opera in history to turn its attention away from mythological and biblical stories and look at ordinary human beings. While there were prior depictions of common people in opera, these were usually farcical and one-dimensional characters, whereas Mozart’s opera has a depth of feeling for its subject that represents a wholly new development in the genre.
The Marriage of Figaro was a big success for Mozart at its premiere in Vienna in 1786, only two years after the play’s premiere. There were so many calls for encores that Joseph II (ruling monarch of the Hapsburg Empire), issued an edict banning ensemble encores in the interests of keeping the theatre hours reasonable and the management costs down.
This new COC production was originally conceived as the headline event of the Salzburg Festival’s celebrations of Mozart’s 250th birthday. The renowned German director Claus Guth focused on the intensity of human desire, which is at the heart of the story, relocating the action from 18th-century Andalusia to fin-de-sècle Central Europe, and pulling from atmospheric influences like the stage plays of Ibsen and Strindberg, as well as the films of Ingmar Bergman. The production has been widely praised for “open[ing] up a new perspective on an opera that is normally staged as a lightweight, turbulent farce” (Zeit online).
This production’s most striking directorial intervention comes in the form of a non-speaking character, Cherubim, who is costumed almost exactly like the page, Cherubino. Cherubim is invisible to the other characters and frequently manipulates them, pushing them together or pulling them apart, symbolizing the engine which drives Mozart’s complex musicodramatic creation: erotic attraction.
While the exact time period remains ambiguous, the action is set in what could be the main hall of a 19th-century mansion. In the opera’s finale (traditionally set in a garden at night), the set is turned upside down, in continuity with the opera’s thematic content: the relationship between master and servant has been challenged, if not overturned, by Figaro and Susanna; love itself, in all its emotional messiness, has seemingly triumphed and displaced the ordering principles of reason; while erotic passion continues to modulate perception, subjective experience, and our interpretation of other selves.
In Figaro, Mozart took ensembles—musical structures with lots of characters singing at once—to a historically unprecedented level of sophistication, emotional impact, and sensuality. Even among the greatest composers, Mozart’s ensembles stand out as uniquely accomplished. One of the best examples is to be found the finale of Act II of The Marriage of Figaro, in which seven musically independent parts are woven into one miraculous whole.
Figaro has never left the repertory and endures today as a smart and witty exploration of human relationships, not to mention a wholly satisfying example of opera’s potential to fuse comedy, tragedy, poetry and a variety of musical writing into a mutually reinforcing, complete work of art.
Photo Credits (top - bottom): Marlis Petersen as Susanna and Erwin Schrott as Figaro. (l-r) Genia Kühmeier as the Countess, Katija Dragojevic as Cherubino and Marlis Petersen as Susanna. (l-r) Simon Keenlyside as Count Almaviva, Erwin Schrott as Figaro, Uli Kirsch as Cherubim and Marlis Petersen as Susanna. All photos from The Marriage of Figaro (Salzburg Festival, 2011), photos: Monika Rittershaus
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One of the most ambitious works of art ever created, Wagner’s Ring is a monumental cycle comprising four interconnected operas. Siegfried is the third instalment of the saga, in which the title character undertakes a psychological journey towards self-understanding, attempting to piece together the story of his origins and grasp his place in the world. In the process, he forges the broken magical sword called Nothung, slays the dragon Fafner, and braves a ring of fire to reawaken Brünnhilde with a kiss, pushing the allegorical story of the Ring toward its inexorable conclusion in Götterdämmerung.
At five hours (including two intermissions), Wagner’s Siegfried develops themes over long arcs of time, as opposed to short bursts of melodic activity. Conventional operas in the late 1700s and early 1800s were structured around the alternating use of two distinct forms of musical writing: (a) lushly orchestrated individual arias, i.e. “set pieces,” and (b) recitative sections, which served to communicate plot information through dialogue to the audience and to link together the big arias of an opera. By the mid- to- late-19th century, however, composers like Wagner began to react against what they perceived as the artificiality of this approach, in which a pyrotechnic aria might suddenly burst out of the action without a dramatically coherent buildup to warrant its emergence. By being slotted in for its beauty rather than musico-dramatic function, the conventional aria runs the risk of being less-than-credible in advancing the story’s emotional stakes. By contrast, Wagner’s vision synthesizes drama and music into one continuously moving, momentum-gathering, emotionally textured whole. Because the score eschews the traditional separation of aria/recitative, the opera builds its tensions, conflicts, and revelations through much more organic, immersive means, fusing orchestra and voice into an indivisible musical experience.
That being said, each of the three acts in Siegfried contains a standout section that could be categorized as a “set piece”: the Forging Song in Act I, in which Siegfried hammers away at the magic sword to restore the broken blade; the evocative sequence in Act II known as Forest Murmurs, in which Siegfried, surrounded by the sounds of the forest, contemplates the parents he never knew and fixes on the song of a Forest Bird, who will eventually guide him to Brünnhilde; and the extended love duet of Siegfried and Brünnhilde that constitutes the opera’s finale.
“For an opera like Siegfried, I try to understand the ‘structure’ of the piece—the architecture of each act—trying to somehow connect the very beginning with the very end and, by doing that, build this arc over the whole evening.” With this production, Maestro Debus leads the 106-piece COC Orchestra through an electrifying score of unparalleled musical storytelling.
Our production of Siegfried is directed by critically acclaimed Canadian film and stage director François Girard. His production has been hailed as “intellectually incisive” and “dazzling” (Opera News); “psychologically rich and mysterious” (NOW Magazine), as well as “awe-inspiring” (Toronto Star).
The set designs by celebrated Toronto-born designer Michael Levine represent the fragmented state of Siegfried’s psyche and memory. There are several elaborate constructions that hold a whirling mass of “memory debris”—including people from Siegfried’s past, remnants of Valhalla, weapons, etc.—suspended above the stage. The use of this “memoryscape” (which changes its configuration in significant ways from act to act) opens the door to a multiplicity of interpretations about the reality of what is happening to Siegfried: is it his imagination, his desire, an actual journey, or the unravelling of a mind that we are witnessing?
Girard is aware of the challenges inherent in staging Wagner’s long spans of time. In response, he has opted to use very clear and precise on-stage movement, eliminating any unnecessary action to heighten the emotional impact of simple gestures and allow the audience to embrace a new impression of time. Assisting in the formidable task is the award-winning Canadian choreographer Donna Feore.
“Huge of voice, unflagging of stamina, imaginative and energetic on the stage.” Seattle Times
“she possess[es] everything a great Brünnhilde must have: dignity, stature, and a voice of molten gold.” Toronto Star
“A commanding performer.” NOW Magazine
See our production live onstage from January 23 - February 14, 2016. To learn more about the production, visit here.
Photo credits (top - bottom): A scene from Siegfried (COC 2006), photo: Michael Cooper. Susan Bullock as Brünnhilde lying on ground with Christian Franz as Siegfried in Siegfried (COC 2006), photo: Gary Beechey. Laura Whalen as the Forest Bird in Siegfried (COC 2006), photo: Michael Cooper. Christian Franz as Siegfried and Robert Künzli as Mime in Siegfried (COC 2006), photo: Michael Cooper.
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Canadian Opera Company patrons will notice two additions to the Four Seasons Centre when they come to the opera this winter. This week, the COC welcomed two new sculptures to the opera house, on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario: a Henry Moore sculpture, placed at the top of the Grand Staircase, and a Jacques Lipchitz bronze, on display in the Henry N.R. Jackman Lounge. While the AGO has loaned the COC several pieces from its collection over the years for display at the Four Seasons Centre, this particular occasion marks the first time the AGO has loaned the opera company two pieces concurrently.
An English sculptor and artist, Henry Moore is best known for his semi-abstract monumental bronze sculptures, which are located around the world as public works of art. Titled Upright Motive No. 5, the Moore bronze sculpture is from 1955-1956 and is part of a series of maquettes developed out of Moore’s visit to the Olivetti building in Milan. He made the trip in consideration of a request for a commissioned sculpture for the building and in visiting the site was inspired by a lone Lombardy poplar. Although the commissioning project was never realized, the maquettes became the impetus for the upright motive series.
Jacques Lipchitz was a Russian-born French sculptor whose style was based on the principles of cubism. He was widely considered to be an important and innovative figure in the formulation of nonrepresentational, abstract sculpture during the early 20th century. On display at the Four Seasons Centre is Lipchitz’s 1917 bronze sculpture Bather III. His method was working towards a recognizable subject from imagined, abstract forms. In Bather III, he built a figure from geometric shapes that are recognizable anatomical parts that help the viewer identify the subject as a bathing female: the head is round, an arc near the centre of the figure indicates a navel, three short, diagonal lines on the notched area that protrudes from the centre of the figure indicate fingers, and figure's legs are crossed. The overall composition seems to be governed by unstable, jostling diagonals that imply dynamism and movement.
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Sara Fulgoni in the COC production of Bluebeard's Castle. Photo: Michael Cooper © 2001