Le Nozze di Figaro, a feminist manifesto

Le Nozze di Figaro, a feminist manifesto

VovaLaVoce is webcasting an all-start Nozze tonight at 8pm hereThomas Hampson is Count Almaviva, Kiri Te Kanawa the Countess, Dawn Upshaw is Susanna, Ferruccio Furlanetto is Figaro, Anne Sofie von Otter is Cherubino, Tatiana Troyanos is Marcellina, James Levine conducts the Met Opera Orchestra and Chorus.

I am prepping for the listening by going back to Mladen Dolar‘s Mozartean musings in Opera’s Second Death, by Slavoj Žižek and Mladen Dolar. Yes, it’s anachronism to call Le Nozze feminist avant la lettre. It’s anachronism, and it’s also accurate.

Ultimately, it is the women who pull all the strings. Both musically and dramaturgically, Mozart’s heart is on the side of the women. The countess is not merely the subject of the sublime act of forgiveness;” [something that the benevolent ruler does in other operas, La Clemenza di TitoDie Entführung aus dem Serail and Die Zauberflöte] “she is also the one who at all points retains great dignity… Susanna is presented with the greatest sympathy. The Count and Figaro are treated objectively, while Mozart’s affection is reserved for the female figures — women truly are the better halves here. This is the stance that could be found in Die Entführung, and it turns out to be ubiquitous in virtually all of Mozart’s operas: How much closer do we feel toward Costanze and Blonde than Belmonte and Pedrillo? How much closer do we feel toward Donna Anna and Zerlina than Don Ottavio and Masetto? How much closer do we feel toward Pamina than Tamino, as she is the true subject of the second half of the Zauberflöte, the carrier of the drama?

Figaro‘s finale also makes the point that the act of reconciliation and the fall of the master can only be achieved through the female pole — the master’s ruin was brought about not by the notoriously clever rebellious servant but only by women… The bond between the countess and Susanna is the prerequisite for the general reconciliation (and in this regard the duet 3.21, “Che soave zefiretto”, is the decisive moment)… Contrary to the men, the women are subject to a certain social mobility in the course of the plot.”

Further, there is no hero tenor in the opera, and Figaro’s cavatina “Se vuoi ballare, signor contino” signals that the master has entered the domain of ridicule.

Just the fact that the Count can be addressed in this way, with such nonchalance, already means that the count is lost, that he is subject to ridicule that cannot be compensated by any amount of social conformity. No matter what he does, he cannot hold onto his status after the cavatina, even though the opera has barely begun.

Three years after the premiere, the Bastille was stormed. How’s that for holding your finger on the pulse of the time? Le Nozze: capturing — nay, owning — the Zeitgeist  since 1786.

Photo from the recent Basel production of Le Nozze.


8 thoughts on “Le Nozze di Figaro, a feminist manifesto

  1. ahh, this explains why I instantly love Mozart’s operas 😉
    there’s some external force that wants to prevent me from listening to ASvO. First, i missed Idomeneo during travel. now we have a meeting specifically moved from 2 days ago to today right on top of Le Nozze. but i have a plan, 1/2 way through meeting, i intend to run back to office to hit the “capture” button on my linux box.

  2. You know how you can start discovering ASvO? With the DVD of L’Incoronazione di Poppea, conducted by Minkowski. Explosive. (all but the last aria… which is strangely cold) I think I watch that DVD at least a couple of times every month, some bits more frequently.

    I’m currently listening to her Grieg CD and Cecile Chaminade CD. She was great in Mozart, but the mezzos stop being asked to do Mozart Hosenrolle as soon as they cross into their thirties…

    Is trick-or-treating tonight? Gee, I’d better get something ready if somebody shows up at my door.

  3. If operas, like films, had posters, I feel that “Owning the Zeitgeist since 1786” would be an apt tagline for Nozze. 🙂 Also clearly I must read this section of _Opera’s Second Death_; so far I’ve focused on Zizek/Wagner

  4. Cool post, Mozart definitely had a window into the womans soul. The only thing I would slightly disagree with is the phrasings ‘the fall of the master can only be achieved through the female pole — the master’s ruin….’ The master neither ‘falls’ nor is ‘ruined’. He has absolute power at the beginning of the opera, the middle, and the end. If you took away Mozarts stunningly trancendent music to the finale of Act IV does any real reconcilliation happen? After everything thats gone on, the cheating, jealousy, and fury of the Count, does he really learn anything at the end? He apologizes, yes, which is definitely important but without Mozart’s music the end would be a massive anti-climax. I mean in act III the countess finds out right in front of him he slept with Barbarina… Isn’t that a lot worse then being caught ‘trying’ to seduce somebody??? He doesn’t learn anything from that and its a little foolish and way too optimistic to think he really learns much at the end. He is publically ousted. But who didn’t know all these things before???

    I think the reason Mozart peered so deeply into the women of his works are that, compared to the men who will always have their power, the women have to work for theirs. That makes them more interesting. You say Figaro and the Count are treated ‘objectively’. I don’t think thats the right term. There’s absolutely no chance during the course of the opera that anything too severe could happen to either character or their position. They are the men, they rule, they make the decisions. At the beginning, and always. That’s what makes the women more interesting because they are constantly having to use subtle and brilliant ways to undermine the men because they don’t have any ‘real’ power.

    My two cents…

  5. It’s a multifaceted issue, for sure. (Just note, it’s Mladen Dolar’s terminology you have reservations about. I also wished he used ‘impartially’ or ‘indifferently’ rather than ‘objectively’ in that context.)

    The Barbarina seduction business — yes, and it stands for many other instances of his philandering, and is part of the Droit de Seigneur which is presumed and fought by the participants. (A friend historian told me once that the DdS had long ceased to be practised by the time of Le Nozze, so I presume that for Mozart’s contemporaries this stood for something else. Maybe aristocratic privilege in general? Maybe male privilege in general?)

    I guess the ultimate question is whether at the end of the opera we see the Count as more secure in his powers or as an undermined and ridiculed figure whose powers are only formally reestablished. My reading is closer to the latter view. There’s the ‘Tutti contenti’ scene where some sort of a quasi-egalitarian community is established (argues Dolar, and I agree) and there the collectivity, not the Count, has the final word.

    Now, Don Giovanni… is a different whackamoly altogether. There, the master emphatically does NOT get defeated in any way, even if at the end he happens to be swallowed by the flames of hell. And I love Don Giovanni perhaps even more than Le Nozze. But it’s an interesting case of Masterdom, his, one worth examining and reexamining.

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