The barbed wit behind the barber: Beaumarchais

Every opera buff knows and loves Rossini’s Barber of Seville and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro. Perhaps even the most casual opera goers realize that they share many of the same characters. That’s because they were based on plays by the same person: Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais.

The one-time royal watchmaker had served time in prison over a failed business deal and developed intense hostility toward the French legal system by the time he wrote his satirical and somewhat autobiographical play The Barber of Seville (1775). In the character of Figaro, Beaumarchais portrayed himself–perhaps not quite how he had lived, but certainly with all the ingredients for how he would have liked to live. Like Beaumarchais, Figaro is an upwardly mobile commoner who advises a nobleman and rises above his station. Also like Beaumarchais, he enjoys mocking the foolish and wicked of his time–mostly his social superiors.



The success of The Barber of Seville made Beaumarchais famous and wealthy. He immediately began work on a sequel, but he was busy with other things, too. By the time he finished it, he had become angrier than ever. This sequel, The Marriage of Figaro (1784), ruthlessly satirizes the government, the noble class, lawyers, and the legal system. Needless to say, when he tried to produce it, he had to tangle with government censors. When Queen Marie Antoinette read it to King Louis XVI, the king vowed that it would never be produced.

Although Beaumarchais made some changes to satisfy the censors, he mainly fought back by reading his play repeatedly in Paris’ various salons. The more he did so, the more the king complained, and the more the king complained, the more his courtiers wanted to know what all the fuss was about. So they flocked to the readings. Contemporary descriptions indicate that Beaumarchais put on an excellent one-man readers’ theater. The audiences came away determined to see the play in full production. The play’s supporters included the king’s younger brother and even Russian Empress Catherine the Great.

Emboldened by this growing support, Beaumarchais arranged a production of The Marriage of Figaro at a small theater. Just as the audience was heading there, the king personally ordered the production’s cancellation. Rather than killing the play, he only caused resentment against himself to build. Even members of the court became outspoken in criticizing him. Finally, someone persuaded the king that the play would probably fail and he grudgingly decided to allow it to go forward, hoping it would soon be forgotten. Instead, The Marriage of Figaro became even more successful than The Barber of Seville, and Beaumarchais became richer and more famous.

Operas on The Barber of Seville

The well-traveled Giovanni Paisiello produced an operatic version of The Barber of Seville in St. Petersburg, Russia in 1782, and then had it produced in Paris two years later. That production probably benefitted from the controversy over the opening of Beaumarchais’ second play. In any case, it became an international hit. In fact, after Mozart heard one or two of Paisiello’s operas, he was enough impressed that traces of the older composer’s style can be seen in some of his subsequent operas. Opera companies mount Paisiello’s Barber occasionally to this day, and it continues to please.

Of course, whenever anyone thinks of The Barber of Seville, they think of Rossini’s version (1816), often considered the greatest comic opera ever written. Not wanting to confuse his new opera with Paisiello’s standard, Rossini initially called his Almaviva. Everyone knew, of course, that both operas were based on the same play. Paisiello, deeply offended that anyone else would try to rival one of his most successful works, publicly denounced Rossini. A group of his friends formed a claque to hiss the upstart work off the stage. It was a dreadful failure, at least for the night. With more rehearsal and without the claque, it quickly overshadowed Paisiello’s opera.

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro

Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, one of the works that shows Paisiello’s influence, had different obstacles to overcome. In a bid to let his nobles know who was boss, Emperor Joseph II had decreed that only opera in German would be produced at the court. Aside from Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio, the experiment produced only pale imitations of French operas with German words. It proved a painful failure

Joseph soon decided to reinstate Italian opera, but according to certain new rules. He appointed Lorenzo da Ponte as the official theater poet.. The emperor had also banned public performances of Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro, but he did permit the text to be published. When Mozart and da Ponte met, Mozart had probably seen Paisiello’s Barber and had certainly read the text of Beaumarchais’ Marriage of Figaro. So he suggested the latter to da Ponte as a good source for a new opera.

By the time da Ponte finished his work, he had kept the characters and basic story line, but omitted all of the satire and anything that might disturb the emperor or anyone at court. Instead, he provided more rounded characters that gave Mozart an opportunity to show deep psychological insight. The resulting masterpiece was the first of three collaborations between the two, generally considered Mozart’s very best operas.

La mère coupable

And Beaumarchais? As he got older and more cynical, he wrote another play based on Figaro, La mère coupable (1792) . It’s not nearly as good, much less well known. It seems to me that a nineteenth-century composer wrote an opera based on it, but I won’t hunt for it. No one but an opera scholar would recognized the name of the composer. Darius Milhaud’s opera of the same title appeared in 1966. It has not become part of the repertoire. Thierry Pécou’s L’amour coupable was first produced in 2010. Who knows at this time whether it will ever be produced anywhere else, let along become known world wide? But Beaumarchais’ first two plays, still performed frequently as plays, gave us three excellent operas.

Photo credit: Portrait of Beaumarchais by Jean-Marc Nattier (1755) from Wikimedia Commons.

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