Mozart’s celebrated comedy on love, desire and deception, actually has more serious undertones of political unrest, which reflected the revolutionary fervour around the world in the late 18th century.
French playwright (and clockmaker, revolutionist, and many other things besides) Pierre Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy of plays in the latter half of the 1770s based around a character called Figaro that were initially banned by King Louis XVI. Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte used the middle of the three plays as the basis for The Marriage of Figaro but, aware of the strength of the (radical) political feeling in the play, adapted it to subdue the content somewhat so the opera appears, on the face of it, to be a story of love and forgiveness.
Beaumarchais’ plays contained autobiographical aspects, from the young Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro representing a younger version of himself, to Susanna being modelled on his third wife. With the revolutionary social attitudes reflecting his beliefs: he was a ‘hands-on’ supporter of both the American War of Independence and the French Revolution – true battles of the ranks.
The Marriage of Figaro was written and first performed in 1786, two years after a ban on the Beaumarchais play was lifted (and just three years before the outbreak of the French Revolution). Both versions were commentaries on the distinctions between social classes, with the threatened droit de seigneur indicative of the powers the nobility held over the lives of the working class. Yet Figaro and Susanna, as members of the serving class, demonstrate a wit and resourcefulness that enables them to overcome their ‘betters’, to ensure things go their way yet making the Count, especially, still feel he is in charge.
Seemingly simple, everyday choices that we take for granted nowadays – such as what to wear or who to be with – weren’t a given then, and in Figaro this is demonstrated right from the very beginning of the opera. Figaro and Susanna share their feelings about the positioning of their new room (right next door to the Count), with Figaro thinking it great, making it easier and quicker to respond to any calls from the adjacent room. But Susanna realises how this also works the other way, granting ‘easy access’ for the Count to their bedroom and her…not an ideal situation in a time of aristocratic privilege!
The years around the time that Mozart composed Figaro (and also The Magic Flute, which can be seen to have similar political undercurrents through its Masonic symbolism) was one of great political upheaval around the world, with the aforementioned American Revolutionary War (aka War of Independence) and French Revolution taking place. The growing dissatisfaction with the ‘upper’ classes, the ruling classes, spread from country to country, leading to the shake-up in traditional social status that such wars brought about. The era also marked the start of the call for the abolition of slavery, plus the Industrial Revolution. So this was a revolution of another type, but one that also irreversibly altered the livelihoods and lives of the working class.
Traditional social structures were being challenged on every level and Mozart played to that with his continually popular The Marriage of Figaro, the comedy with a social conscience.