“Figaro qua, Figaro là, Figaro su, Figaro giù!” No, you’re not imagining things. Figaro – an invention of the French playwright Beaumarchais – really is everywhere, just as he sings in his Act I aria “Largo al factotum” in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Rossini’s Figaro is one of the most well-known operatic versions of this character. But Beaumarchais’s trilogy of Figaro plays has been adapted by several composers over the years. On August 11, Glimmerglass Music Director Joseph Colaneri will explore some of these Beaumarchais-inspired works with the help of members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program.
The plays, which premiered in succession in Paris between 1775 and 1792, were initially censored because they contained less-than-flattering depictions of the aristocracy and presented taboo themes like adultery and the droit du seigneur, the law that allowed feudal lords to take advantage of female vassals on their wedding nights. Le Mariage de Figaro, the play that followed Le Barbier de Séville, was even banned from the stage for three years by King Louis XVI, despite Queen Marie-Antoinette’s appreciation for the work. Notwithstanding the ban, the play grew popular through private readings before the King finally relented and allowed it to be performed. Mozart was smitten with the story and promptly began work on an operatic rendition with Da Ponte as librettist. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro premiered in Vienna 1786, just two years after the play’s long-awaited stage debut. Following suit, Rossini composed his operatic version of The Barber of Seville almost 30 years later. The Figaro frenzy among opera composers shows no signs of slowing down. In addition to Mozart and Rossini, Giovanni Paisiello, Saverio Mercadante and Darius Milhaud, among others, have all tried their hands at operatic renditions of Beaumarchais’ plays. Moreover, in summer 2019 Glimmerglass will present John Corigliano and William Hoffman’s The Ghosts of Versailles, a 1991 opera that features not only the Almaviva household but also Beaumarchais himself.
A Renaissance man who lived during the Enlightenment, the penniless young commoner Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais rose to fame by inventing a mechanism to make pocket watches more accurate. When his former mentor attempted to take credit for his invention, the 21-year-old stood his ground and proved to the French Academy of Sciences that the invention was his own. He then went on to become musical advisor to the King, a savvy broker of business deals for the aristocratic elite, a landed nobleman in his own right, an acclaimed playwright and a diplomat. He was even a revolutionary – twice. Beaumarchais eagerly supported the Americans in their fight for independence from the British, but only begrudgingly pledged his fealty to the fledgling republic in France once he realized it was in his best interest to do so. If any of these biographical details sound familiar, it might be because Beaumarchais bears an uncanny resemblance to Figaro himself.