Exploring our favourite mum in opera

20 March 2020
Man seated with woman leaning on him, both dressed extravagantly in period dress.

Marcellina in The Marriage of Figarois formidable, fickle and totally fabulous. Little is known about this character in Mozart’s masterpiece, so we sat down with Leah-Marian Jones, Welsh National Opera's latest Marcellina to get under the skin of this opera’s unsuspecting hero.

'Marcellina is very much an emotional assassin, the Queen of manipulation. When someone wants something done, they go to her and she sorts it. Want a wedding ruined? She’s your girl. She reminds me of Lady De Winter from Alexandre Dumas’ 1844 novel, The Three Musketeers. She’s mysterious, beautiful, dangerous but unlike De Winter, Marcellina’s not evil, not really. She’s more than happy to ruffle a few feathers but she doesn’t deliberately go out to hurt people, although I’m sure Figaro’s fiancée would disagree.

When you get to a certain age, a lot of the female roles are similar so when I was preparing this role, I took inspiration from other roles I’ve performed during my career. I’ve only done Marcellina once before, with Scottish Opera’s 2010 production, and it was very different production.

The Director has a lot of influence on the character and Max Hoehn has been very precise with his direction, but my main source of information has been the music, which of course dictates the character’s personality. During her Act I duet with Susanna, Via resti servita, madame brillante, the long, smooth musical phrasing gets shorter and shorter as the duet develops until you are left with one note responses, reflecting the character’s growing agitation. Marcellina has a very short fuse when things don’t go her way.

As the opera develops, we see a mellower side of her. Her Act IV Aria, Il capro e la capretta, is usually cut but in this production, it’s been kept in. The aria sees Marcellina wondering aloud why birds and animals can love in peace, but a man always betrays his woman. Is she only referring to Count Almaviva or is this a reference to her relationship with Bartolo?

We don’t know a lot about Marcellina but we know that she has a very questionable past with the Doctor. Her and Dr Bartolo come as a duo, but their relationship goes deeper. What some people might not know is Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is the sequel to Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. In Rossini’s opera, Berta is Dr Bartolo’s maid/housekeeper. Fast forward to Mozart’s opera and Berta has developed into Marcellina, a wealthy (looking) woman. There’s no reference to her working so where has her wealth come from? Does Bartolo support her?

Marcellina is a pivotal part of the story. What we don’t know at the beginning of the opera is that Marcellina is a mum and this is what makes her the unsuspecting hero of The Marriage of Figaro. Why? Figaro must have his parent’s permission in order to marry Susanna. Unfortunately for him, he was left at a church when he was a baby, but all ends well when Marcellina’s identity is revealed. His father? Who else? Bartolo.

If Marcellina wasn’t in the opera, it would be a very short opera. The main theme in The Marriage of Figaro is of course love and Marcellina is one aspect of this love. If her circumstances have been different, I think she would have made a great mum.’