The best Figaros are mostly Italian - Renato Capecchi, Giuseppe Taddei, Lucio Gallo, Lorenzo Ragazzo, Ruggiero Raimondi, Luca Pisaroni, Claudio Desderi - the only non-Italians who can punch at Figaro’s weight are Bryn Terfel, Gerald Finley, and the little-known Anton Scharinger. Figaro doesn’t require a great voice. There are many Italian basses and baritones who fall on the rocks with Figaro ( Ezio Pinza, Cesare Siepi, Sesto Bruscantini) because they don’t understand what makes him tick and sing the entire role as though they were Don Giovanni seducing Zerlina. Figaro is not a singer’s role, it’s an actor’s role - and Comic Actor’s at that. But Figaro must be sung beautifully, but to sing Mozart only with beauty is to do a terrible disservice to his infinite-sided music. In order to understand Figaro, you must understand the Italian culture from which he hailed - an Italian culture that doesn’t have much currency anymore, as well as the French notions of beauty which good singing conforms to.
It’s a far more common problem with singers who play Susanna, who usually try to sing Susanna as though she’s just another beautiful woman with no real depth of her own. For my money, there are a few good ones, but only three unreservedly great Susannas whom I’ve found so far - Anna Moffo, Alison Hagley, Lucia Popp, and Cecilia Bartoli - two of whom are Italian (or Moffo was at least the American daughter of Italian immigrants). Most sopranos try to sing the role rather than embody it. The loss is the audience’s, who will never understand just how much is lost in the process. As in everything with Mozart, duality is the key to all - Figaro and Susanna are both equal parts poet and peasant, and both sides must be present at all times.
The Marriage of Figaro is more grounded in reality than any opera (than any work of theater?) ever written, but like so many Mozart operas, Mozart arrives at that reality by standing a fairy tale on its head. All one has to do is to think of The Magic Flute, a nobleman or knight is sent on his quest to defeat an evil sorcerer to recapture a damsel in distress, only to discover that the evil sorcerer is in fact benevolent and the Queen who sent him on his quest is vengeful.
(Children of Paradise - One of the greatest movies ever made, and a movie impossible without either Commedia dell’arte or Mozart.)
In the particular case of Figaro, the Fairy Tales in question are the stories of Italy’s ancient and now hallowed Commedia dell’arte tradition - though it was hardly hallowed at the time of its most common practice. The Commedia dell’arte stood in direct opposition to the ideals of humanism and realism of the Renaissance era which birthed it - it was an application of the modern means and technology of the Renaissance to a Medieval ethos. While Michelangelo and Raphael were painting ever more realistic figures, Commedia dell’arte used caricatured masks and exaggerated movements. While Machiavelli and Erasmus probed the workings of the human mind, the characters of Commedia dell’arte were strict archetypes with no interior life. Petrarch and Tasso aspired to prove that the Italian colloquial language could hold riches as great as anything from the Classic poets of Ancient Greece and Rome. But Commedia dell’arte aspired to a language that could be understood by all. All throughout the Renaissance era, individuals of genius proclaimed their mighty work to inspire the world’s awe, but Commedia dell’arte was a completely derivative work - with the same basic stories told over and over again, and each troupe putting its own variation on the same theme. For hundreds of years, Commedia dell’arte was a popular artform with no intellectual aspirations. It was common currency throughout Europe, and everyone knew its characters as well as all of us today might know characters from the old network Sitcoms which were watched every week by tens of millions.
The most basic plot of Commedia dell’arte involves an evil nobleman named Pantalone - greedy, selfish, tyrannical, who must be brought to heel, mostly because he oppresses a young pair of fresh faced lovers - known in Italian as Innamorati. He is inevitably brought to heel by his servant - Arlecchino (Harlequin) - who is inevitably much smarter and more skilled than his master.
Within this framework can be an infinity of plot variations, but the additional characters were usually all the same. There is Colombina - the mistress of Arlecchino, who aids his schemes with her female cunning. There is La Signora, who marries Pantalone for his wealth and usually cuckolds him. There is Il Dottore, the learned man brought in to help Pantalone who is in fact rather stupid and can’t keep up with Arlecchino’s cunning. There’s La Ruffiana, the ugly old woman who used to be a whore and whose love is unrequited. There’s Pedrolino, the servant, who acts as the go between that moves the plot forward and can help or hinder Arlecchino’s plans. There’s Tartaglia, the doddering old servant who has a stutter...
There are some stock characters from Commedia dell’arte who don’t make their way into The Marriage of Figaro, but at least half of them do. Mozart knew about these characters in Austria, and Beaumarchais knew about them in France. There is neither a Marriage of Figaro nor a Don Giovanni nor a Cosi fan Tutte without the example these characters provided. Nor is there any way Moliere could have written Tartuffe, or Shakespeare could have written a Midsummer Night’s Dream.
But the tropes of Commedia dell’arte are the gears through which Mozart turns everything we ever knew about popular art. Through this popular artform, Mozart and Da Ponte created a ‘new man.’ Mozart did not have much time for reading, but he would have had to have a great deal of familiarity with the ideas of his day in order to move in social circles like the ones from which he hoped to gain employment. And the most commonly read authors of his time were still the philosophes of France - particularly Voltaire and Rousseau. The French Revolution and the German intellectual revolution were just around the corner, but at the time, Mozart’s head would be filled with Rousseau notions, with his characters Emile and Sophie, who were brought up to be both masters of and in natural harmony with their surroundings, with Rousseau’s notions of how innate goodness was corrupted from birth by society, of how the lower classes lack of finish presented a more true and healthy view of life, and how a firmer social contract must be established to allow all people better lives. The air throughout Europe was of reform, not revolution. It was thought that a greater welfare, a higher standard of living and culture for the world’s masses, could be brought to fruition in strictly controlled surroundings like crops on a farm. Through Figaro and Susanna, Mozart and Da Ponte showed how Arlecchino and Columbina can be transformed into Emile and Sophie.