The name of the town is Seville, Spain - home to the characters of so many great operas and just around the corner from North Africa - latitude 37 degrees 22 minutes North, longitude 5 degrees, 59 minutes West - a hundred-twenty-five miles due North from the Strait of Gibraltar and the hottest, most tropical area in all Europe. Excepting the characters in this opera and half-a-dozen others, nothing of note ever happened in this town. Sure, it’s the historic Andalusian capital where Catholics used to rub up against Muslims and Jews until Mad Queen Isabella put an end to all that. But other than its heat and some nice buildings, nothing to remarkable ever happened here. Cervantes left this town when he decided to write Don Quixote. Diego Velasquez was born here, but he got out by the time he was a teenager and never returned.
But we're technically not in Seville, we're in a castle right outside the town called Aguasfrescas. For those of you who don't speak Spanish, Aguasfrescas is Spanish for... Watersfrescas... It’s a nice castle, know what I mean? Nobody too special or extraordinary ever lived in it. Christopher Columbus once flogged a Native American right over there (point to someone in the front row), and General Franco;s minions once hosted a secret meeting here with a high-ranking Nazi who’s last name, believe it or not, was Barbie.
This castle has the reputation of being a happy place. And that reputation is entirely earned. What happens in this place, what’s happened for 228 years, is pure happiness. Happy not because everybody in it is happy, but quite the opposite. This place is happy because its happiness is earned by so much suffering.
We’ve thus far experienced little in this place but farce and high spirits, but this castle is as full of horror as happiness. And of all the people we meet on this journey through Aguasfrescas, no one has more happiness to earn than the Countess. No one suffers more, no one has more occasion to grieve, no one in this castle has more knowledge of the horrors which make our happiness so necessary.
Who is she? Where did she come from? Why is she so sad?
All we know about her is that like so many women of her time, ...of all time, she is a prisoner. She was born a prisoner, and she may yet die one. For her entire childhood, she was the ward of the self-aggrandizing Doctor Bartolo whom we recently met. And as so many legal guardians of a certain era, Bartolo raised his ward with the singular intention of creating a wife for himself, and shut her off from the world so that she would not be tempted by more fitting suitors, and the more worthy men would be completely unaware of the prize which dwelled among them.
Such a situation is horror enough in itself for any girl, and who knows to what other horrors the good Doctor might have subjected her? But not even Bartolo could hide such a treasure from the Earth. And into her iron-barred world swept the Count - young, handsome, exciting, adventurous, and disguised as a soldier so she might fall in love with him and not with his money. Three years ago, the Count enlisted Figaro to help him foil Bartolo and win the the love of this mysterious enchantress. From that scheme came the work of opera you know as The Barber of Seville.
But the Count has become a very different man in the elapsing time, and because he has, so has everybody else. What happened in the last three years? Did the Count begin his marriage a good husband in good faith? Did the Countess become engorged on her newfound freedom and lose the Count’s love with too many demands? Did the Countess have a child? Did the Countess lose a child? All we know of this woman who beguiles three generations of men in this opera is that she was a prisoner her whole life, only to be liberated by the perfect man, and then discover her liberator to be yet another jailer, perhaps still more horrific than her first.
But the Countess still has one admirer whose ardor hasn’t cooled and still hasn’t resorted to underhanded tactics to control her life, even if he eventually might try. Cherubino still hasn’t left yet for the army. Figaro told him not to, and we’ll have more on why in a few minutes. In the meantime, please allow me one more thought on Cherubino before we listen to Voi Che Sapete, Mozart’s #1 song from the 1786 hit parade.
Many times, authors leave an imprint of their identity in their characters. Who can read about the author of the original play, Pierre de Beaumarchais, a provincial peasant who by sheer brilliance and charisma lifted himself from poverty to the highest echelons of enlightened society and thought, and not see Figaro? Who can look at the man who adopted the play for the opera’s text, Lorenzo da Ponte, a Jewish convert who became a priest and then kicked out of the clergy for being caught in bed with a woman, and not see Don Basilio? In the same way, who can look at Cherubino (Cherubino reaches for the guitar on the bed), this young man with a clear musical talent, beloved of the Countesses and their chambermaids alike, a terrible thorn in the side of stuffy aristocrats, and not see the young Mozart, surrounded by older women who shower him with affectionand sit in awe of his angelic gifts?
We decided very early on that since Mozart’s orchestra imitates a guitar, and since we only have five players to provide an imitation of a guitar, it would make the most sense to have this song played by an actual guitarist. What luck that our Cherubino is so talented that she could do so with such little trouble.
But now let’s talk about the plot again. In the first act, Figaro had a line of dialogue in which he told Cherubino not to leave, and we now find out why. Figaro knows just how jealous the Count can be, so he shows the Count a letter which makes it look as though the Countess has a lover. Meanwhile, he instructs Susanna and the Countess to dress up Cherubino as a woman so as to tempt the Count with a new woman in the castle - whom the Countess then will intercept as the Count tries to seduce this new servant girl. When the Count is caught trying to hit on the new girl, it will in fact be Cherubino dressed as a woman, and in order to avoid exposure of the fact that the Count has macked on an underage boy, he will marry Figaro and Susanna with all due haste. And now we must watch the onstage characters prepare a terribly confusing erotic spectacle - two beautiful women must undress a third beautiful woman who plays a man, so they can dress this man up as a woman.
Are you confused? So are we…
Holy shit that was hot…
Sadly, we have to fast forward through the bit (singers mime it) where Cherubino once again demonstrates his ribbon fetish and the Countess comes within a hair of yielding to temptation, only for the Count to knock on the door and Cherubino having to scramble into the Countess’s closet with his clothes. The Count is already furious, thinking that the Countess has most likely taken Cherubino as a lover. But if the Count finds Cherubino in the Countess’s room, he will not only believe that the Countess and Cherubino are having an affair, but also that his wife’s probable lover is dressed up as a woman.
(very hastily) Let’s not take too long with this. The Count wants to get the door open to catch his wife with Cherubino, whom he thinks is having an affair with the Countess. Had he knocked thirty seconds later, the Countess and Cherubino may have already embarked upon an affair, but as of yet, the Countess is completely innocent. The Count threatens to call in his guards to break open the door, but the Countess reminds him that the outcome he supposes would cause a scandal. So the Count goes to his room to get tools to break open the closet himself, but not before insisting that the Countess come with him and lock the door. Aaaaand… Go!
(Still very hastily) When Beaumarchais first wrote the stageplay, the subtitle was to his work was “A Day of Madness.” And after an hour of exposition, the stage is finally set to unleash the full madness of Figaro’s world. For more than an hour, Mozart’s been setting every last domino in its proper place so that so that with a simple flick of a finger, a musical castle built with dominoes can fall one by one over a period of twenty minutes. First a duet, followed by a trio, followed by a quartet, followed by a quintet, followed by a septet. A chain reaction of musical mayhem, one confusion piling atop the next, with yet another confused character spilling over into the room to confuse the characters and the audience still more. Not to build up your expectation too high, but there is a reasonably well-known history professor lecturing down the street at the Peabody Conservatory who confidently announces to his every class that the following twenty minutes is the greatest music ever written. So here you go…the greatest music ever written… (shrugs)