Figaro takes place many years after The Barber of Seville. In Barber, we witnessed the blooming of a passionate love between Count Almaviva and the young Rosina. Figaro, as the Count’s ally, assists him in rescuing Rosina, and the lovers unite in matrimonial bliss. However, when Figaro begins, things are out of balance. The Count is actually targeting Figaro’s own bride as his next sexual conquest. Rosina no longer receives love and attention from the Count; she must fight to restore the Count’s fidelity and regain his heart. As in many Mozart operas, redemption is long in coming but arrives beautifully during the final moments as everything concludes with a joyous celebration. It is positively bursting with happiness and mirth.
It is hard to resist the fun of watching the Countess, Susanna and Figaro try to outsmart the Count, Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio. The situations we witness are hysterically comic, but there is also a darker side to Figaro if one reads the original source material by Beaumarchais. The play itself was banned because it portrayed an aristocrat being outdone by a servant: something that did not sit well in pre-revolutionary France. There is a sense that the servants could rise up and revolt against the Count at any moment in the play. Mozart removed the highly politicized sections of Beaumarchais’ text when he adapted it into an opera, but the seeds of social unrest still remain within the very DNA of the storyline and its creation.
The underlying simmer of social discord is where the story of this new production begins: Khori Dastoor, General Director of OSJ, asked me and my frequent collaborator, scenic designer Steven Kemp, to consider the possibility of a Figaro set in India, specifically in North India. We only had to consider the idea briefly before concluding this setting would indeed be perfect for the opera. If set around 1880, we could maintain the elegance the work deserves while allowing for a gorgeous wedding scene in the vivid colors of Hindu tradition. In addition to nineteenth-century India being a stunning location and culture to explore visually, the country had just suffered a bloody rebellion against the British in 1857. The violence against the Indians during this unsuccessful revolt was exceptionally cruel. In the world of our Figaro, the memory of this terrible conflict would definitely be fresh in the minds of the Count’s servants. Not only is Susanna in danger, but every servant in the Count’s household is as well, and this concept raises the stakes for all the characters involved.
Despite the tensions that run as an undercurrent throughout the opera, Figaro positively sparkles with a spirit of joyful exuberance. To embody this within our setting, we will incorporate elements of traditional Indian dance and movement into the staging. North India is an expressive culture and this tradition will highlight the intensely emotional struggles of the characters in this masterwork. Also, dancing brings joy to the stage, something which The Marriage of Figaro has delivered nonstop to audiences since it premiered in 1786. That itself is a miracle!