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Beaumarchais’s controversial play The Marriage of Figaro was written in 1778 and is often credited with heralding the French Revolution. By ridiculing the accepted rights and privileges of the nobility it called for a social re-ordering that aroused the ire of government censors and was not performed in public until 1784 at the Comédie Française.

It premiered however in 1783 at a private performance supported by Marie Antoinette in the home of aristocrat Joseph Hyacinthe Vaudreuil (Vaudreuil was rumoured to be the lover of the duchesse de Polignac, friend and confidant of the Queen).

For Opera Atelier’s version of Mozart’s operatic rendering of the play I have conjured this first performance and set it in the courtyard of a noble country residence within romantic parkland. The Elgin Theatre audience takes the place of Vaudreuil and his friends, and witness a travelling band of commedia dell’arte performers unpack and set up their show. The naïve artificiality of their sets is meant to contrast with the fully-realized Palladian architecture that encloses their playing space on the Elgin stage.

Beaumarchais’s original succeeded largely because its jibes were masked and softened by its humour. Though politically subversive, The Marriage of Figaro is also supremely funny and I felt that the sets for the opera should reflect its humour. The opera takes place in one day over four acts, three of which happen indoors. Each indoor scene is represented by a large canvas backdrop identifying its location and each of these backdrops contains an obvious visual joke.

We open in Figaro and Susanna’s sparsely furnished bedroom of pink and white boiserie, a marble mantelpiece with a mirror above reflecting a bagged chandelier. A closer look at the painted scene reveals a black cat perched on the mantelpiece spying a tiny mouse on the floorboards below. It is of course a metaphor for the cat and mouse games that are about to be played by all the principal characters throughout the opera.

Set design by Gerard Gauci.

The action moves to the Countess’s bedroom with its blue and white striped silk bedding, a folding screen and skirted dressing table. A glance through her bed curtains reveals a gilt oval frame that should be reserved for a portrait of the Countess’s husband but instead houses the likeness of her lover Cherubino dressed as a commedia dell’arte Pierrot.

Act three takes place in the Count’s apartments, an unending enfilade of rooms decorated with scores of hunting trophies referencing his love of conquest. Curled on the floor by his master’s chair is the count’s hunting dog, a symbol of fidelity sound asleep and as inactive as the marriage vows once exchanged by the aristocratic couple.

The opera ends in the garden and this is where the jokes end as well. Though the disputes are resolved and the couples reunited it is by no means a carefree happy ending and as such I have allowed the final tableau to speak for itself.

– Gerard Gauci


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