The Marriage of Figaro, first performed in Vienna in 1786, was a harbinger of the great French Revolution of 1789.
As Amadeus Mozart’s most overtly political opera, it buzzes with a sense of outrage at feudal privilege – but also with the possibility of a more just and equal society.
At its heart is a challenge by the servant Figaro to the traditional right of the master, Count Almaviva, to sleep with his bride-to-be, Susanna, on the first night of the marriage.
The opera is based on a play by the French radical Pierre Beaumarchais which was banned by the Austrian emperor Joseph II. But Mozart’s Figaro was given the green light.
In many ways it is the first modern opera – its characters are contemporary individuals whose feelings and aspirations we can identify with, as opposed to heroes and heroines from Greek or Roman legends.
But Figaro is also modern in another sense – it clearly resonates with today’s struggle against class privilege and inequality.
Olivia Fuchs’ new production of Figaro at the English National Opera (ENO) brings out both the wit and drama of the opera.
She highlights its satirical core – the count wants to be thought of as progressive and has abolished the feudal right to the first night, but now he wants to revive that “right” in order to bed Susanna.
But the production has its drawbacks. It is set in a 1930s English country house, Agatha Christie style, with costumes to match.
Yet that was a decade of capitalist, not feudal, decline and consequently some of the opera’s politial edges are blunted.
Perhaps a future production of Figaro could be set in a more appropriate period – pre-revolutionary Russia in 1915, perhaps?
The Marriage Of Figaro
English National Opera, central London
directed by Olivia Fuchs
until 20 February