July 24, 2024

Nicholas Muni Reflects on Le Nozze di Figaro by W.A. Mozart

Recently, Nicholas Muni directed a new production of Mozart’s magnificent opera at the Miami Music Festival. Working with a double cast of talented young singers, none of whom had performed their roles in this opera before, Nic Muni had the opportunity to work on this great opera from the ground up. Le Nozze di Figaro is one of a relatively small number of operas that are based on a piece of literature—in this case, the second in a trilogy of plays by Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais: Le Barbier de Séville, Le Mariage de Figaro, and La Mère coupable. The first play was made into an opera twice, once by Paisiello and a second (more famous) version by Rossini. The third play has had a number of treatments but is rarely performed.

When embarking on this project, and because it is such a staple of the operatic repertoire, Nicholas Muni decided that it would best help the young cast to do a deep dive into certain historical aspects of the period, highlighting the most salient of those relative to the events of the opera. Starting with the droit du Seigneur, the right of the master to bed the bride on her wedding night, Nic Muni clarified a very important detail that is often overlooked: this right only applied to indentured servants and not to all servants, of which there were two types: paid and indentured. Indentured servants were considered the property of the master and as such were subject to numerous laws, the droit du Seigneur included. The paid servants in this opera are Figaro, Marcellina, Basilio and Don Curzio. The indentured servants are Susanna (the Count’s romantic interest), her uncle Antonio and his young daughter Barbarina (in addition to many unnamed characters like cooks, gardeners, stable boys, etc.).

Nicholas Muni reminded the cast that as unsavory, offensive and outrageous such a feudal right seems to us, it was not always unwelcome by the families of the young brides who were subjected to it. For one thing, if a pregnancy resulted from the union of the bride and the master, it almost guaranteed an elevation in status to the bride and her family. The advantages could be realized in terms of security, lifestyle and sometimes even financially. Of course, Susanna’s intransigent reaction to the Count’s proposal only highlights her integrity and honesty, in stark contrast to her younger cousin Barbarina who is only too willing to enter into a sexual relationship with the Count.

The complicating factors with regard to the droit du Seigneur in this particular opera are two. First, Count Almaviva (the master) had abolished the droit du Seigneur three years prior to the start of the opera as a wedding gift to his own bride Rosina (Countess Almaviva), as a gesture of his everlasting devotion to her. So, in fact, he would be re-establishing it for Susanna and this would be a direct affront to his wife. The second factor is a bit more complex but equally interesting. When Figaro discovers that he is the son of Don Bartolo and his former housekeeper Marcellina, Figaro is automatically elevated in status to that of a minor nobleman (inherited from his father, Don Bartolo). As such, he automatically becomes entitled to free his bride Susanna from her indentured status and, even if the droit du Seigneur were still in force, the Count would have had to relinquish his right.

According to Nicholas Muni, there are numerous tidbits of historical information throughout this opera with which Mozart and his Librettist DaPonte—and the audiences of their day—would have been fully familiar but of which contemporary audiences—and most artists—are unaware. Although the opera functions perfectly well on universal terms, knowing these underlying facts, customs and decorum enrich the opera even more.