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Mozart and the Pastoral

Escape and Acceptance in Le nozze di Figaro

by Roger Brunyate


The country has long held a special fascination for city dwellers, as a canvas upon which they may project their dreams and sometimes their fears. In his comedies, for example, Shakespeare often uses untamed nature to set up a magic world outside of reality, where different rules apply. In A Midsummer Night’s Dream, for instance, it is the Wood near Athens; in As You Like It, the Forest of Arden; in The Tempest, it is the entire island. To this magic place, Shakespeare brings a group of people in trouble: ill-assorted lovers, children fleeing demanding parents, rightful rulers deposed by tyrants. At first, affairs become even more complicated under the influence of this magic than they were before; therein lies the comedy. But the ultimate power of this special place is to sort everything out, and to return the characters to the real world with their wrongs righted.

Peabody Opera Theatre production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, March 2001
A Wood Near Athens
A Midsummer Night's Dream at Peabody, March 2001

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro also calls upon a rustic setting to resolve its conflicts, the garden of the fourth Act. Though weaving the same magic as Shakespeare’s enchanted worlds, this is by no means untamed, being an artificial environment laid out by one of Count Almaviva’s ancestors in the grounds of his chateau, a sort of playtime version of the real country. Indeed, it is essential to link the garden to the indoor settings for the previous three acts, both for practical reasons and so that it does not appear to be a scene from a different opera. I like to do this by increasing the amount of openness in each of the three earlier acts, so that the garden seems like the next natural term in the series. So we start with a small windowless room, move to an elegant apartment with light streaming through a window, then go to a grand hall backing onto an open terrace, and finally to a garden adorned with fountains, statuary, and little pavilions.

Sketch design for Act IV
Garden of Count Almaviva’s Palace
Design sketch by Roger Brunyate

Recently, however, I have become aware that even though Mozart’s garden is shown onstage only at the very end of the opera, it has been musically present in the score from the very beginning. I owe this point to the writer Wye Jamison Allanbrook who, in her scholarly but always insightful book Rhythmic Gesture in Mozart (Chicago, 1983), looks at the frequent use that Mozart makes of dances and other musical forms which are already part of the social fabric of the time, and examines how their real-world social connotations become ironic references in the imagined world of the opera. In her view, music becomes a metaphor for class, and in particular for the upper-class appropriation of the imagined world of common country people in that peculiar artifact known as the Pastoral.

  The Minuet; painting by Giambattista Tiepolo
The Minuet
Painting by Giambattista Tiepolo
At the simple level of class conflict, Allanbrook’s basic point is not a new one. Many commentators have pointed to Figaro’s first aria, “Se vuol ballare.” His fiancée Susanna has just told him that Count Almaviva, their master, has installed them in a bedroom next to his own with the intention of slipping into her bed at the first opportunity. Left alone, Figaro vows to stymie the Count’s plans:
I will be happy, dear lord and master,
to play the guitar if you want to dance.
If you would care to visit my schoolroom,
I shall be glad to teach you to prance.  NOTE
The music to which he sings this is a stately minuet, which is of course a court dance, Almaviva’s musical language rather than Figaro’s own. So challenging him in his own voice is the equivalent of a punctilious politeness that is actually more insulting than outright defiance. Later in the aria, he breaks into a furious galop that would not be at all out of place in a peasant dance:
With rapid footwork, dodging, adjusting,
now nimbly feinting, now quickly thrusting,
I’ll put an end to your thoughts of romance!

Figaro ends the aria with the minuet once more, its threat concealed under a veneer of politeness now paper-thin. It would be hard to think of a better musical symbol for the sabots of the new order treading on the satin slipper-heels of the old, as indeed they did. Beaumarchais had to wait six years before the French King gave permission for the public performance of his play Le mariage de Figaro in 1784; five years later, the Revolution began in earnest. Performance of the play was banned also in Austria, though Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte were allowed to present their operatic version in 1786. Perhaps music was considered a less inflammatory medium, or perhaps it was simply that Mozart’s interest was more human than political.

Real-world associations imported into theatrical make-believe. But Allanbrook goes further, suggesting that the court life of the aristocracy might itself be a type of make-believe, taking artistic form in the late eighteenth-century fascination with the pastoral. As a concrete example of this, she points to the Petit Trianon at Versailles, and the lifestyle embodied therein.

Versailles: Le Petit Trianon
Le Petit Trianon, Versailles

Much smaller than the Palace of Versailles itself, the Petit Trianon was begun in 1762 as a private residence for Madame de Pompadour, the mistress of Louis XV. It was not completed, however, until 1768, when the new King, Louis XVI, offered it to his Queen, Marie Antoinette, as a place where she could escape with the ladies of her court, and where not even the King might enter without invitation. The Queen made increasing use of this retreat as the political situation in the real world become more and more threatening. Even the little jewel-box palace became too confining, and she followed it by the construction of a small park in the English style, more rustic and picturesque than the grand vistas of the main grounds. And around a pond in the middle of this romantic garden, she built a model farm, complete with dovecote and dairy, where the Queen and her ladies would dress as shepherdesses and milk carefully-washed cows into pails made of Sèvres porcelain. In photographs, it looks like a stage set, for so in effect it was. But pre-revolutionary France was a far remove from a theatrical comedy; unfortunately Marie Antoinette’s enchanted landscape proved a lot less effective than its equivalent in Shakespeare’s plays.

The Hameau at the Petit Trianon  
Le hameau, Versailles: mill and dairy
Marie Antoinette’s retreat at the Petit Trianon
Allanbrook identifies several different musical fingerprints associated with the pastoral tradition. The simplest is the use of the meter of six eighth-notes per measure in a gentle tempo. This is something associated with rustic contexts in all Mozart’s operas, and it dates back well before his time. We hear it in Figaro, for example, in Act III where the peasant girls enter to present the Countess with bouquets of wild flowers; it is a charming and spontaneous scene, and it shows the pastoral at its purest, without either irony or artifice. There are at least three other appearances of this meter in the last half of the opera, all combining to create the enchanted ambience of that moonlit garden.

The first of these is the duet sung by the Countess and Susanna as they write the letter inviting the Count to an assignation in the garden later that night; he believes it will be kept by Susanna, but it will be his own wife wearing the maid’s clothes. The letter is in the form of a little riddle, with a missing final line:

Where the gentle evening breezes
Fan the fragrant summer land,
’Neath the little grove of pine trees…

— And the rest he’ll understand.
The Countess dictates as Susanna writes, and you can hear her create the romantic setting, not as a description of a real place, but as a deliberate pastoral artifact. Of course, the garden itself is equally such an artifact, created from shrubbery rather than words.

  Two women; sketch by Fragonard
Two Women
Drawing by Jean-Honoré Fragonard
When Susanna comes to the garden in the last act, she also uses the music to shape the setting to her own purposes. But now there is a complication; through a series of misunderstandings, Figaro believes that she intends to keep the assignation herself, and cuckold her husband on their own wedding night. Knowing that he is hiding in the bushes, Susanna punishes his jealousy by a recitative which paints the garden in terms worthy of a bodice-ripping romance:
Now comes the time when without inhibition
I give myself to my beloved!
No foolish fears shall disturb the delight
that already throbs in my breast!
As though to fuel our amorous fire,
the romance of this glade, its perfumes, its shade…
the shadowy night hides my secret desire.
You can hear her laughter in the orchestra as she thinks all this up. But then the rhythm changes to the six-eight pastoral lilt, and she paints a different picture, no less romantic but simpler, naming and savoring the sounds, sights, and scents of the real place in which they find themselves:
Come, do not delay, my darling lover!
Come where true love is ours to discover;
While the night is young and the moon yet hidden.
while the world is still and nothing forbidden.
The murmuring stream, the play of the breezes,
the whispering leaves, the perfume that pleases,
The cool of the grass, the laughter of daisies,
invite us to love and sing hymns in its praises.
Come, my beloved, here where the garden encloses;
and I shall encircle your forehead with roses.
This is still the product of artifice, and you can hear the pleasure that Susanna takes in enumerating its details. But it merges imperceptibly into the real thing, and by the time the aria ends, it has become the epitome of sincerity.

Anyway, Figaro does have to watch the Count making advances to Susanna (as both men imagine). He succeeds in interrupting the tryst for the time being, but then comes upon the Countess (as he thinks) and tells her what is happening. For a moment, Susanna drops her guard. Now realizing the deception, Figaro declares his adoration to the pretend Countess, which so infuriates Susanna that she beats him about the head and shoulders. Now Figaro offers the olive branch, beginning a duet that is the last flowering of the six-eight pastoral rhythm in the opera:

Let’s make peace now, my dearest, my treasure;
I could tell it was you from the pleasure
that your voice always brings to my heart…
Let’s make peace now, my dearest, my treasure;
let’s end the quarrel that kept us apart.
Susanna accepts his apology, but then they hear the Count’s voice in the distance and decide to give one more turn to this screw. Without changing the pastorale rhythm, Figaro makes passionate love to “the Countess,” interspersed with loving asides to the real Susanna. The same music can serve both for genuine pastoral simplicity and the artificial imitation of it, Marie Antoinette’s model farm as well as the real countryside. The idea of escape to an idealized country setting runs through this opera, but only those that have the key can convert the idyll into the real thing.

Watteau: Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera
Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera
Painting by Jean-Antoine Watteau; 1717, Paris, Louvre

Wye Allanbrook also points out that the escapism implied in the pastoral mode also functions on a higher register than simple shepherdess music in six-eight; one might call it the aristocratic pastoral. From the renaissance onwards, the pastoral has also been associated with the supposed innocence of classical Arcadia, where shepherds and shepherdesses associated with wood-deities and nymphs, with occasional visits from the Olympian gods. But it was specifically in the eighteenth century that this became identified as a form of imaginary wish-fulfillment for the noble classes. In the visual arts, this is epitomized by Watteau’s 1717 painting, Pilgrimage to the Isle of Cythera (Paris, Louvre), showing a group of ladies and gentlemen visiting the mythological island of Venus, complete with classical statuary and flying cupids. But the expensive contemporary dress gives the impression of an elaborate make-believe, an afternoon-picnic equivalent for an evening masquerade, no doubt destined to continue into the evening and whatever erotic dalliances the darkness may provide.

The musical equivalent of this mood is also heard throughout Le nozze di Figaro. One of the most striking moments comes in the Act IV finale, between the two seduction scenes involving the disguised women. Left alone briefly onstage, Figaro remarks that the stage is now set for his revenge. But his language is full of classical allusion coming strangely from his lips:

All is serene and peaceful yet…
As Venus keeps her rendezvous
with handsome Mars to play untrue;
while I, like Vulcan, will pursue,
and catch them in my net!
More striking still, the music makes a magical modulation to E-flat and the orchestration becomes rich with wind instruments. The key, tempo, and mood is exactly that of Mozart’s Serenades; something very similar will return again in the second act of Così fan tutte where the ladies are serenaded by their new lovers. That is most certainly a masquerade, where normal rules are dissolved and danger is hidden under the seductive spell of make-believe; nothing could be more artificial, but nothing could be more effective either. And here too, even Figaro is temporarily seduced. In my opinion, these twelve measures do more to create the atmosphere of the magic garden than any amount of lighting or set design could ever do.

Peabody Opera Theatre production of Cosi fan Tutte, March 2002
The Serenade in Così fan tutte
Peabody Opera Theatre, March 2002

The note of the aristocratic pastoral is first heard, oddly enough, in the very first music sung by the Countess, her aria “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro.” The question is whether this is a lowercase amor (love) or an uppercase one (Cupid, the God of Love). Despite the lowercase letter in the score, the fact that the Countess personifies and apostrophizes Love implies a quasi-mythological interpretation, and so I translate it:

God of Love, bring consolation
for my sorrow, for my sighs!
Either give me back my husband,
or permit that I should die!
This is a very direct, very simple aria, but it is not a practical one. At most, it is a prayer, breathed by someone who has no idea how to regain what she has lost. And the vocal simplicity is set off against a decorative filigree of woodwind phrases, again much in the serenade manner. The classical lament which memorializes grief rather than fighting it is itself a form of the pastoral.

But when the Countess sings again of her lost love in her aria “Dove sono i bei momenti?” in Act III, there is no trace of myth or make-believe. The long recitative shows her trying to convince herself that her desperate plan to change clothes with her servant is no more than a harmless game, and cursing her husband, whose disdain has brought her to such a pass. Then follow the three verses the aria proper, in which she wonders what has happened to the love in her past, wishes that she did not remember it so clearly in the present, and despairs of being able to regain it in the future:

Are they gone, those happy moments,
gone the joys I knew before?
All forgot, those fond endearments
that with lying lips he swore?
And when all has turned to weeping,
and my heart knows only pain,
must the memory of loving
mock my foolish soul again?
Ah, if only my devotion,
constant even when apart,
might offer me some distant notion
of changing his ungrateful heart!
The characteristic tone of the aristocratic pastoral makes a brief appearance in the second stanza, where the “memories of loving” conjure up a fleeting picture of an afternoon stroll in a sun-dappled arbor; perhaps it is the return of the woodwinds, even at one point quoting a phrase from the earlier aria. But this does not last, and the Countess returns to the elegiac mode elegiac mode. But then an amazing thing happens. Going quite against the sense of the words, where the main verb is a distant unrealizable subjunctive, she seems to say: “Enough of if only! I shall make it happen!” So she forces the tempo from andante to allegro, soaring into her upper register, and banishing all despair. Not for her the escape into pastoral make-believe; not for her either the escape into pastoral elegy, which makes sorrow bearable; not escape of any kind, but a grasping of the challenge and a determination to find her own solution.

The pastoral, as the mode of wish-fulfillment, implies a kind of eternal youth and is often associated with eroticism. You hear this as early as Cherubino’s first aria, “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio” (I don’t know who I am, what I’m doing). Although this opens in a spate of logorrhea, before long Cherubino has taken the path of any love-sick adolescent, going into the countryside to pour out his feelings to the trees and streams and echoing air. Cherubino is a Count in training. The real Count is past his adolescence, but not yet ready to accept the responsibilities of adulthood. Getting Rosina out of the clutches of her guardian and marrying her was a splendid game, but three years have passed and he is still looking for games to play, still trying to hold onto his youth. I believe that he sees himself at the center of his own Isle of Venus, in a perpetual pastoral make-believe.

Carlos III in Hunting Attire  
Carlos III in Hunting Attire
Painting by Goya; 1786, the year of the Figaro premiere
I admit that I am attracted to this interpretation as a way to give the Count a lighter side than I have generally managed in the past. So often in the opera we see him angry, cornered, or frustrated; there are very few opportunities to hear him in action as a lover. But it is reasonable to suppose that he has charm and normally a light touch. There is also the fact that he has presented himself as a liberal master by abolishing the droit de seigneur on his estate; one assumes that he is confident of being able to win his women without insisting on his rights. He is fond of hunting, and the pursuit of two-legged game is merely an extension of that rural sport. Indeed, everything seems to be a game with him. He can play with the barely-teenage Barbarina, because her youth and the conventions of the pastoral (she is the nearest thing in the opera to a genuine shepherdess) give at least the appearance of innocence to his dalliance. When he is matching wits with Figaro in the Act II finale, he introduces a little gavotte tune (which Allanbrook identifies as another manifestation of the pastoral on a slightly higher register) as a way of toying with his servant. And when his planned midnight masquerade seems to be coming to fruition, he enters almost whistling another playful little tune, as though life were nothing but a continuous erotic game.

What the Count has not realized is that even the game of love can have serious consequences, in the pain caused to his wife and the insult to his servants. Ultimately their seriousness gets the better of his gamesmanship, and for once he is speechless. The orchestra, everything, stops. With make-believe no longer possible, without any musical trope or stylistic borrowing to fall back upon, he must speak out of the silence in his own words in front of all his dependants, a simple apology, two words only: “Contessa, perdono.” Now, instead of looking for escape, he finally takes responsibility. The Countess does forgive him, and harmony is restored. Will it last? An uncertain passage in the strings leaves the matter in some doubt. But then the final allegro breaks out; for now, at least, there is a wedding to celebrate and fireworks to enjoy.

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