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  • Marrying Figaro: A Review of Three Productions on DVD
  • Peter Brooks (bio)
Wiener Staatsopernchor, Wiener Philharmoniker; Deutsche Grammophon B0004354-09; (2 DVD), 2005; Conductor: Karl Böhm; Director and Design: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle; Director of Photography: Ernst Wild; Figaro: Hermann Prey; Susanna: Mirella Freni; Count Almaviva: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; Countess Almaviva: Kiri Te Kanawa; Cherubino: Maria Ewing; Barbarina: Janet Perry; Don Basilio: John Van Kesteren; Don Bartolo: Paolo Montarsolo; Marcellina: Heather Begg; Antonio: Hans Kraemer; Don Curzio: Willy Caron
Arnold-Schönberg Chor, Wiener Symphoniker; Originally staged for the Pepsico; Summerfare Festival,; State University of New York at Purchase, 1989; Produced for television in 1990; Decca B00004243-09 (2 DVD), 1991; Conductor: Craig Smith; Director: Peter Sellars; Architect: Gerhard Janda; Set Design: Adrianne Lobel; Costumes: Dunya Ramicova; Lighting: James F. Ingalls; Choreography: Mark Morris; Figaro: Sanford Sylvan; Susanna: Jeanne Ommerlé; Count Almaviva: James Maddalena; Countess Almaviva: Jayne West; Cherubino: Susan Larson; Barbarina: Lynn Torgove; Don Basilio: Frank Kelley; Don Bartolo: David Evitts; Marcellina: Sue Ellen Kuzma; Antonio: Hermann Hildebrand; Don Curzio: William Cotton
Glyndebourne Festival Opera, London Philharmonic; Kultur (1 DVD), 2003; Conductor: Bernard Haitink; Director: Stephen Medcalf; Designer: John Gunther; Lighting Designer: Pat Collins; Video Director: Derek Bailey; Figaro: Gerald Finley; Susanna: Alison Hagler; Count Almaviva: Andreas Schmidt; Countess Almaviva: Renée Fleming; Cherubino: Marie-Ange Todorovitch; Barbarina: Sue Gritton; Don Basilio: Robert Tear; Don Bartolo: Manfred Röhl; Marcellina: Wendy Hillhouse; Antonio: Donald Adams; Don Curzio: John Graham-Hall

I had the temerity, during the spring semester of 2006, to undertake the co-teaching of a seminar at University of Virginia Law School entitled “Marriage in Law, Culture, and the Imagination.” While making up the syllabus, I found myself proposing to my co-teacher (Kerry Abrams, a genuine law professor with [End Page 564] expertise in family law) that we bring the course to its glorious conclusion with a class on Le nozze di Figaro. This was intuition at work: I had no clear sense of where the course was headed and how Da Ponte and Mozart would fit. Yet somehow the opera seemed to have it all—everything about marriage that has seduced and troubled the Western imagination for centuries. As it turned out, Figaro was a brilliant choice: it offered a triumphant—and troubling—conclusion to the semester’s work.

As I was putting the syllabus together, I airily remarked that students would view the opera on DVD. Eventually a choice had to be made, and expert advice had to be taken. Two versions ended up on the library reserve shelf: the Jean-Pierre Ponnelle version from 1975 to 1976, conducted by Karl Böhm, and the 1994 Glyndebourne Festival production, directed by Stephen Medcalf and conducted by Bernard Haitink. I didn’t offer the choice of another important contender, the 1990 Peter Sellars version, conducted by Craig Smith—though no doubt it would have spoken more directly to students than the others.

It was my thought that they needed a period piece, indeed a costume drama, more than a contemporization, since their sense of history was so undeveloped and the historical coordinates of the particular tyrannies that preside over the opera’s action so important. Sellars’s version is brilliant, and James Maddalena, in silk pajamas and then in duck-shooting garb, is a convincingly predatory Count Almaviva; but the initial situation that provokes the events of this day of madness, the infamous droit du seigneur, doesn’t seem to have much relevance in 1990s Trump Tower. Whether the droit du seigneur ever really existed as such—as a recognized feudal right—isn’t clear. It may have been more the invention of a cultural imagination that saw in the feudal lord’s sexual prerogatives the most obvious and resented symbol of arbitrary power. Whether or not feudal lords regularly exercised such a right, in the social imaginary it came to incarnate the abuse of patriarchy and the claim of the phallus, in a nearly Lacanian sense, as the signifier of signification itself. That Almaviva has publicly announced the abolition of such an abusive privilege on his estates marks him as a man of the late Enlightenment—not, one senses, an enthusiastic convert to Aufkl...


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