History abounds with numerous examples of commedia dell’arte-based theatre running afoul of official critics and censors. Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro is no exception. This commedia-based play caused a scandal due to its irreverent critique of the social mores, hierarchy, and political institutions of late 18th century France.
What much of the ruling class found most shocking however was the implication that a female servant could successfully impersonate a member of the nobility by simply changing her clothes for those of her mistress. Consequently, it seems particularly ironic that just four months after the premiere of Beaumarchais’ play, a prostitute named Nicole Leguay d’Oliva successfully impersonated the Queen of France, while meeting the star-struck Cardinal de Rohan in a grove in the gardens of the Palace of Versailles, resulting in the infamous “affair of the necklace”.
It would seem that life imitated art in this extraordinary event, which did irreparable damage to Marie Antoinette’s reputation, and that Beaumarchais’ observations were particularly prescient. Small wonder that to its detractors, Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro “smelled of sulfur”.
The idea of assimilating the characters of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro to the stock figures of commedia dell’arte or “Italian Comedy” initially came from viewing a series of 18th century engravings illustrating Beaumarchais’ original text. They depicted the characters of the play in a manner astonishingly reminiscent of the familiar personae of the commedia. On examination, Da Ponte’s libretto, based on Beaumarchais’ work, confirmed the initial intuition and there proved to be no difficulty in analogizing the figures of opera with those of commedia. Perhaps this is not surprising. Commedia dell’arte has had a considerable influence on French theatre since the time of Molière. Like so many of the scenarios which have survived from the commedia tradition, The Marriage of Figaro presents a comedy of intrigue, and the diversification of characters in the comedy closely parallels that of the traditional commedia dell’arte.
– Marshall Pynkoski
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