Not everyone knows that there was a third part to Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy: their operatic incarnations have helped cement The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville in the collective imagination for centuries – but what of The Guilty Mother, the final puzzle piece? Darius Milhaud gave it operatic life in 1966, as did Inger Wikström thirty years later, and earlier this year, Russian-British composer Elena Langer stepped up to add her work to the growing Figaro family, in the form of her witty, elegant Figaro Gets a Divorce. The work was premiered by Welsh National Opera, its artistic director David Pountney having penned the libretto.
The Grand Théâtre’s generous and ambitious plan is to present the three operas on consecutive days. The stagings hold their own as standalone works, but with clever little touches to link them (matching waistcoats; themed stage curtains), in their union they spell out a largely coherent narrative.
So where do we stand, when the curtain parts on Part Three? The Count and Countess have been more or less happily married since Il barbiere di Siviglia, their servants Figaro and Susanna since Le nozze di Figaro. Yet even the longed-for bond of marriage is not infallible: it can be destroyed from the inside or the outside… In a politically unstable (and geographically ambiguous) context, the dark figure of the Major steps into the household and threatens to undo all. Gone here are the games of rings and pins and disguises that drove the love intrigues of the first two works, but some elements are ever present: the sense of working against the clock, of opportunities nearly missed, of lives hanging in the balance of what is truthfully told and what is withheld.
If this sounds like a grimmer twist on the familiar comic themes of deceit and unfaithfulness, it is: exile, revolution, loss, divorce are ostensibly the opera’s major themes, and the yet Figaro Gets a Divorce is surprisingly cheery – although sharp with irony and jazz.
Although its setting is historically vague, the production gives us clues: early cinema, cabaret, fascism, war, all underly the staging in rather broad lines (a typewriter, a newspaper, lipstick, neon). This cartoonishness comes with pitfalls: cross-dressing for laughs may have been a mainstay in Mozart’s time, but in this day and age it’s firmly passé. Ralph Koltaï’s stripped-down set, however, gives the opera a much more subtle texture, all torn cardboard and light reflected through plexiglass; the painted backdrops backlit like Japanese silk.
This balance echoes the slightly uneasy fit of the music and text. There is a certain cartoonishness to the libretto itself; Pountney seems to believe in something like tell, don’t show. Lines at crucial moments include "I am frightened", "Where has the money gone?"and "I will destroy them one by one" – hardly modern poetry. The text establishes itself far from the shadow cast by Beaumarchais’ Guilty Mother or Ödön von Horváth’s 1936 play. It is Pountney’s own interpretation, however one might feel about that.