Dallas Opera: Beaumarchais- Keeping Time with the Enlightenment

Classic Arts Features   Dallas Opera: Beaumarchais- Keeping Time with the Enlightenment
Dallas Opera's current production of The Marriage of Figaro - featuring Daniel Okulitch in the title role - continues through Nov. 22. Here, journalist Olin Chism provides some lesser-known background information on the man behind the source material: Beaumarchais.



The very mention of the name conjures up a certain kind of character. Likable, intelligent, energetic, witty, of humble birth but never obsequious to the rich and powerful.

Figaro stars in two operatic masterpieces, Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro and its prequel, Rossini's The Barber of Seville. (There are other Figaro operas as well; more about that later.)

As great as Rossini's Barber is, most would grant supremacy among Figaro operas to Mozart's, which the Dallas Opera is currently presenting. Many consider it a landmark of Western civilization. The late music scholar Stanley Sadie, editor of the New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, thought that only Shakespeare's comedies equaled The Marriage of Figaro in "depth and seriousness."

Mozart's matchless music is the supreme contributor to that depth and seriousness, but it's the combination of text and music that has kept it an audience favorite through the last 222 years.

Opera-lovers owe a great deal to the grandfather of that text, a remarkable Frenchman named Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. (The father is Lorenzo da Ponte, who turned Beaumarchais' French comedy into an Italian operatic text.)

It was Beaumarchais who invented Figaro, as well as Count Almaviva, the Countess, Susanna, Cherubino, Doctor Bartolo and all the other vivid characters in this timeless comedy. Figaro was Beaumarchais' favorite: or at least it becomes clear while reading his biography that the character Figaro was modeled after Beaumarchais himself. He was of humble birth but moved easily among aristocrats. Highly versatile, he was a master watchmaker, music teacher, publisher, playwright, secret agent, and a specialist in getting others (and himself) out of difficult situations.

The United States may owe its existence to Beaumarchais; his secret dealings on behalf of the American Revolution provided vital help at a time of desperate need. In fact, the Central Intelligence Agency considers his role of such historical importance that there's an article about him on its website (Google "CIA Beaumarchais" to read it).

In light of that, it's fitting that Beaumarchais' life span was the same as George Washington's. Both were born in 1732 and both died in 1799.

Beaumarchais was born in Paris to a watchmaker and his wife. The boy was trained to follow his father's profession and became highly skilled at it, inventing a mechanism that significantly improved a watch's functioning.

It was a Beaumarchais watch that started his meteoric rise in the French court. He made a tiny watch and sent it to Madame Pompadour, King Louis XV's mistress. The king saw it, admired it, and asked Beaumarchais to make a duplicate. This royal endorsement made Beaumarchais a much-in-demand figure as a watchmaker to the Parisian aristocracy.

Soon the young man became an attendant at court. Then, when it was discovered that he was a skilled performer on the flute and harp, he was asked to teach the harp to the king's four daughters. They lived a cloistered existence, and the witty and personable Beaumarchais brightened their otherwise dull lives.

The French court was a place of intense jealousies and petty intrigues, and the rise of Beaumarchais : a mere commoner : to a position within the king's family aroused spiteful comments. One incident, in which a young aristocrat attempted to humiliate Beaumarchais before a crowd of fellow nobles, shows the animosity toward him. It also shows that he was more than a match for his would-be tormentors.

The aristocrat stopped him one day and asked him to examine a watch and assess its quality. Today it's hard to see any maliciousness in this act, but in the 18th- century French court it was a way of emphasizing the lowly status of a mere watchmaker in such glittery surroundings. Beaumarchais, who saw what he was up to, replied that he had been out of the business for awhile and, besides, had become clumsy lately. The aristocrat insisted, so Beaumarchais relented, warning him again of his clumsiness. He held the watch up high, as if to examine it, then let it fall to the floor, where it lay ruined. "I told you I was clumsy," Beaumarchais remarked, and walked off, probably with a wink at the other courtiers.

But Beaumarchais also had friends in high places. One of them was the financier Joseph Paris-Duverney, the brother of the royal treasurer and a close associate of Madame Pompadour. A very wealthy man, he took a liking to Beaumarchais and guided him to a considerable fortune (he had done the same for Voltaire).

Malicious rumormongers hinted that Beaumarchais also profited from the deaths of his first two wives, each a wealthy widow who died within a few months of their marriage. He gained nothing from their estates, a point he was aware of before their deaths, so he had no motive to poison them, as the rumors claimed.

The ups and downs of the mature Beaumarchais' career, both financially and socially, are too many and complicated to discuss in a short space. It's sufficient to say that, on the low end, he spent a lot of time in court defending himself against civil judgments, and court intrigues cost him his favored position, which wasn't helped when anti-aristocratic sentiments began to flow from his pen.

Still, the break wasn't complete. His intelligence and talent as an arranger and fixer were far too valuable an asset for the French court to give up. For instance, there was the case of the blackmailer, a French emigre living in London who was threatening to publish a four-volume expose; of the affairs of Madame du Barry, the king's latest mistress.

The king demanded his extradition, but the British refused. So the king sent Beaumarchais on a secret mission to England to deal with the situation. It took two trips, but Beaumarchais charmed (or threatened) the emigre into burning the already-printed volumes and accepting a much smaller payment than he demanded. Beaumarchais even managed to recruit him as a spy for the French.

Beaumarchais' involvement with America began as another secret mission, one he clearly sought. In 1776, at the urging of Beaumarchais, the French govern- ment decided to aid the American revolutionaries. To avoid conflict with the British, this had to be done secretly. A scheme was set up to have Beaumarchais pose as an independent entrepreneur.With money from the French and Spanish governments as well as private investors, he would provide arms and provisions to the Americans, who were to repay with goods, since they had no money.

Beaumarchais also provided non-monetary help. It was he who introduced the German baron Friedrich von Steuben to Benjamin Franklin. Steuben went to America and is credited with molding the American irregulars into a real army.

Unfortunately for Beaumarchais, he lost a great deal of money in the supply scheme. The Americans became suspicious of him, the French government could not acknowledge its involvement, of course, and the repayments never occurred in his lifetime, though his descendants received partial repayment by Congress in the next century.

The belief that Beaumarchais was simply a greedy adventurer has lingered, but it seems clear from his voluminous writings that he was truly sympathetic with the American cause. In fact, one of his nephews sailed across the Atlantic, joined the American army, and was killed in action.

To those who have read Beaumarchais' plays Le Barbier de Seville and Le Mariage de Figaro (there are several English translations), it will come as no surprise that the author sympathized with the Americans. The underdog Figaro is cleverer than his aristocratic antagonist (and sometime ally) the Count. He also is outspoken in asserting the rights of the lowly and criticizing the high and mighty. Once King Louis XVI became so incensed that he ordered Beaumarchais thrown into prison (fortunately, the normally placid king calmed down and ordered his release a few days later).

Le Barbier de Seville was premiered in 1775 and Le Mariage de Figaro followed in 1784 (it had been held up for several years by censorship). Both were very popular and were soon followed by operatic versions.

The first operatic Barber was by the Italian composer Giovanni Paisiello; it premiered in 1782 in Saint Petersburg. After several decades of popularity, it was decisively superseded by Rossini's Barber, which was first performed in 1816 in Rome.

Mozart's masterpiece came with amazing speed. The Marriage of Figaro premiered in Vienna on May 1, 1786, just two years and four days after the debut of Beaumarchais' play. Clearly artistic news moved fast in 18th-century Europe.

According to Da Ponte, it was Mozart who came up with the idea of creating an operatic Marriage of Figaro. It's interesting to compare their version with the original. For one thing, they follow Beaumarchais very closely. Such famous scenes as Figaro measuring the space for a bed, or Cherubino hiding behind the chair when the Count comes in and then hiding in the chair, or Cherubino jumping out the window and Susanna taking his place in the closet, are straight out of Beaumarchais. The characters are the same, except that a couple of secondary characters in Beaumarchais are compressed into one very minor character in Mozart and Da Ponte.

There are differences. Most significantly, a couple of speeches by Figaro are curtailed in the opera. This is justifiable for reasons of length, but also aesthetically, as Beaumarchais seems to be settling some personal scores with lawyers, judges and aristocrats and the speeches ramble off course. Still, the cuts have the effect of lessening the pungency of Beaumarchais' social critiques and have been criticized for that reason.

Some of the characters' personalities and relationships are also altered slightly. Marcellina, and to a lesser extent Susanna, are given distinctly feminist views in the play; these disappear in the opera. Basilio is in love with Marcellina in the play; not so in the opera. Most surprisingly, in the play the Count seems more amused than contrite at the concluding turn of events.

Beaumarchais may have been peeved by some of these changes. In 1793 he concocted a bizarre hybrid production of Mozart's opera in which he inserted spoken material that Mozart and Da Ponte had trimmed and added a ballet at the end to celebrate Figaro's and Susanna's marriage! This significantly lengthened opera/play/ballet lasted five performances before vanishing, probably forever.

There is a third Figaro play, by the way. It's La Merecoupable, or The Guilty Mother. It's considered by French literary critics to be of lesser quality than the first two in the series. Perhaps that's the reason that composers haven't been much drawn to it, at least until recent times. Darius Milhaud wrote an operatic version in 1966, there reportedly is one by the Swedish composer Inger Wikstrom, and it forms the basis for an opera-within-an-opera in John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles.

La Merecoupable, which premiered on June 6, 1792, was Beaumarchais' swan song as a playwright. But it certainly wasn't the end of excitement in his life. Paris was filled with the tumult of the revolution, and he barely escaped with his life several times. While he was taking refuge elsewhere, his wife, daughter and sister were arrested. They were saved from the guillotine only by the death of Robespierre and the end of the Terror.

Beaumarchais took up causes to the end. He fought for the rights of authors, who at that time were considered secondary characters in the theatrical business. In one extremely farsighted move, he urged the French government to involve itself in aeronautics. Hot-air balloons had recently been invented, and he envisioned something like blimps or dirigibles as practical applications. His proposal went nowhere.

After a lifetime of excitement, Beaumarchais died in his sleep on May 18, 1799. He had lived to hear Mozart's masterpiece, but he missed Rossini's by 17 years.

Olin Chism is a former member of the arts staff at The Dallas Morning News.

Today’s Most Popular News: