Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Gutting The Social Commentary Of Opera: The Case Of The Marriage Of Figaro

From the COC production.

 Over the weekend, I went to see Mozart's Marriage of Figaro at the COC. It is an amazing opera, dealing with sex, love, and the fickle nature of the human heart. It's also about class, gender, power, and the relics of the feudal system in the eighteenth century -- but unfortunately you wouldn't know that from the staging of the COC production.

Do you know the story? It's the eighteenth century,  and the Count's loyal servant Figaro is about to marry the lovely Susanna, the Countess's maid. The Count is bored with his wife the Countess, whom he once loved passionately. He not only flirts with his more attractive female underlings, he also abuses his position of power to badger and coerce them into reciprocating his sexual attentions.

Even though the Count says he is all about abolishing "feudal privilege," in fact he is plotting and scheming to prevent the marriage so he can have Susanna all to himself. Through plotting and scheming of their own, Susanna, the Countess, and Figaro subvert his plans, and make a fool out of him.

Like so many works of artistic genius, the opera works along multiple dimensions. It's a comedy, with ridiculous disguises, mistaken identities, people hiding behind curtains, that sort of thing. It's also a love story, with all the modern rom-com conventions. And, on top of all that, it's a social commentary.

One of the more interesting social commentary aspects is reflection on the "sexual double standard." Why does the Count get to fool around with impunity, while his wife's briefest admiring glance brings censure and rage? Yes -- it turns out that people have actually been thinking about this problem for over two hundred years.

But the main social commentary has to do with power. The Count gets to do whatever he wants, because -- well, because he's the Count. If this includes sex with Susanna -- well, what are Figaro and Susanna going to do? They're servants. They're under his orders and under his protection. It's not like they can up and leave, wander the countryside for other options.

The opera takes you to the brink of horror -- is the Count really going to rape Susanna and prevent Figaro from marrying her, thus ruining both of their lives? -- before bringing you back to a happy ending through antics and absurd plot devices (literally "OMG, that's actually Figaro's long lost mom!").

Of course the Director chose to showcase how relevant a story of class, power, and sex is to our modern era -- Oh, just kidding! In fact the staging was such as to undercut the social justice commentary and to "psychologize" the whole thing.

Infuriatingly, the physical direction showed Susanna sort of willingly going along, as if it's a kind of half-hearted flirtation on her part and not a case of control of the weak from the strong. The Count is presented not as a menace, but just as a kind of bossy and irritable guy. There's a scene where in the story, the Count is going to kill someone out of jealous rage. The way it was in this production, you find yourself thinking, "Well, he'll just shout a lot and then he'll get over it." It changes the whole point of the story.

In the program notes, the Director says that in his interpretation, the characters are "completely torn between morality, desire, and impulse," and that this was why he wanted to "follow the characters into their darkest psychological depths, but at the same time leave space for exploring the utopian moments in Mozart's music."

Could any artistic statement be more of its time? I mean, for all the ridiculous hand-wringing about political correctness, so much art has become de-politicized. Or -- you can make political statements these days, but you can't put politics and entertainment together. Somehow it's like people think the Venn diagram of "entertainment" and that of "thinking about society" should be empty.

There's a trend of focusing on individuals, and what's in their hearts and minds, instead of the social structures and context around them. The forces of of individualism have become so deep and pervasive, it's like people find it hard to even conceptualize the idea of "social justice" as "social." The director thus sees only individual characters, torn between their own sense of morality, dignity and obligation, and their own desire, eros, and impulse.

As longtime readers know, this keeps happening to me with opera. I thought it might be something to do with the COC, but many of the productions with the same problem were created in other places and then brought here. So it's some kind of widespread phenomenon.

With all these productions, you'd think we were all living in a post-class and post-gender paradise, where everyone is equal and no one can exert absurd control over one another, where the idea of coercion and sexual assault through power dynamics was somehow past us.

As if you'd say to yourself, "Well, this opera is partly about power, gender, and class. But we don't have those problems in our society, so ... Wait, I know, I'll make it about the characters' 'darkest psychological depths!'"


Lee J Rickard said...

Seems that it would be easy to reinject the social commentary. Just set the opera in a university. Maybe have the Count be a famous older male astronomer.

Janet Vickers said...

It's just too relevant today, to those of us who have witnessed the destruction of civil society, the fifth estate and government - one can only assume power is the only thing that matters, and the powerless are content to blame those who have very little power.

People are turned off by those who display the broadening gap between the masses and the nameless, faceless, ruling elite.