The program for last night’s Vocal Department Recital by students at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music was arranged roughly in chronological order. This led to a juxtaposition of two arias from Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Performing in succession two arias that are far more distant in the libretto of the opera provided a useful perspective on Mozart’s gift for dramatization.
One of my professors like to talk about K. 492 as a study in contrasting characters. The first act wastes no time in defining two of those contrasts, Figaro and Bartolo followed by Susanna and Marcellina. More interesting, however, is the contrast that leaps from the middle of the first act into the opening of the second. That is the contrast between Cherubino and Countess Rosina Almaviva.
I deliberately use the Countess’ first name to stress the connection to Pierre Beaumarchais’ preceding play in the Figaro trilogy, The Barber of Seville, which explains how the young maid who was Bartolo’s ward came to be the wife of Count Almaviva. The sun shines brightly at the end of The Barber of Seville, but love is not all about bright sunlight. While in Beaumarchais’ play The Marriage of Figaro may have ultimately been about the empowerment of the servant class, Mozart’s opera is all about the complexities of love.
We get out first taste of those complexities in the successive introductions of Cherubino and the Countess. Cherubino, sung by a mezzo as a trouser role, is a weird mix of raging hormones and logorrhea. His passions lead him to chase after every woman, but those emerge as an flood of words pouring out at a rate faster than his mind can follow. As he says at the end of his aria, when he cannot use those words to declare love to his latest fancy, he declares love to himself.
The Countess, on the other hand, allows Mozart to explore the receiving end of such male enthusiasm. We meet her at the very beginning of the second act at a time when her husband, too, is chasing after other women. (By the end of the first act, we know about two of them.) Through Mozart’s cavatina, “Porgi, amor,” we appreciate every detail of the clouds that have darkened that sun from the end of The Barber of Seville; and, in so doing, we also realize that Cherubino’s enthusiasm will also have its own inevitable dark side.
While last night’s two student performers never shared the stage, their performance in succession gave a substantive taste of how Mozart’s dramatic flow progresses. Each had the good sense to use the musical introduction as an opportunity to “get into character,” even if this was little more than a few significant adjustments to posture and gesture. The result was a brief interval during which the genre of recital unfolded into the genre of opera, thus emphasizing the significance behind the isolated selections of the recitalists.