Figaro was first performed in 1786, based on a play by da Ponte who was the leading librettist at that time. The play had everything to commend it, not least the thrill of being banned because of its subversive nature. Figaro teems with plots and intrigues. The play is reminiscent of a French farce, with characters being hidden and uncovered in unlikely places. The play is set at the time of the French Revolution and based in Seville. It is a brilliant comedy of social and sexual tension, with powerful depictions of grief and jealousy. Figaro stands out, even in Mozart’s work, for its great human warmth and natural characters.
The first Act opens with the impending marriage of Count Almamiva’s valet Figaro, to Susanna, the Countess’s maid. The Count, having fallen out of love with the Countess, has designs on Susanna, and arranges accommodation for the couple in a location convenient to him! Figaro, anxious not to lose Susanna, suggests a plot to the Countess which will force the Count back to fidelity. The plot unfolds with the Count believing that he has an assignation with Susanna, but in truth, with the Countess. The Count is well and truly stitched up by Figaro and the Countess, is duly exposed, but takes it all in good heart. When all is revealed he begs for forgiveness. The Countess gives it, which leads to happiness and rejoicing.
The opera uses most of the ingredients of comedy. It is fast-moving and confusing. The triumph of the wronged servants over the aristocracy was, in a sense, played out in another forum, the French Revolution! The difference between Figaro and events in Paris was that Figaro was very funny. Viewed in this context, it can be appreciated why da Ponte’s play was regarded as subversive and was banned.