The Worldly Wag Behind Cherubino, Rosina And Figaro!

Marlis Petersen (Susanna) and Peter Mattei (Count Almaviva) in the 2014 Metropolitan Opera production of Mozart’s 'The Marriage of Figaro.'  (Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
Marlis Petersen (Susanna) and Peter Mattei (Count) in the 2014 Met production of ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’
(Photo by Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)
By Susan Brodie

What if you could rewrite history to give yourself a leading role with a happy ending? Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, the author of the three Figaro plays, was a watchmaker’s son who parlayed good looks, charm, intelligence, energy, and a way with words into a life resembling a James Bond movie. His gifts for networking, seizing opportunity, trading strategic favors, and navigating the complex shoals of French bureaucracy and politics came at a time of great upheaval. But he never truly established himself in the aristocracy he so longed to join.

Portrait of Beaumarchais by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1755.
Portrait of Beaumarchais by Jean-Marc Nattier, 1755.

In The Ghosts of Versailles, John Corigliano and William M. Hoffman’s fantasy on the third play in the Figaro trilogy, Beaumarchais takes a leading role, declares his love for Marie Antoinette and tries unsuccessfully to reverse her fate, but is happily reunited with her after death. The Ghosts of Versailles is the opening entry (starting Feb. 7) in LA Opera’s “Figaro Unbound” festival, which also includes productions of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville (Feb. 28) and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (March 21).

How Beaumarchais became Beaumarchais is almost as interesting as the operas he inspired. He was born in 1732 in Paris, the only boy among six children. His father was a master watchmaker, a Huguenot who had converted to Catholicism. Pierre was more interested in music than watchmaking, but apprenticed with his father at age 13. His skill and talent were offset by a precocious fondness for night life, sleeping late, and a Cherubino-like interest in older women.

When his father threw him out of the house, the teenager reportedly survived by performing his songs and running shell games on the street. Family friends persuaded his father to take Pierre back in, and at age 19 he invented an escapement mechanism which greatly improved the reliability of pocket watches. The court watchmaker tried to claim credit for this innovation. Young Caron’s successful defense of his invention, along with a dainty ring-mounted watch he created for Mme. de Pompadour, the king’s mistress, gave him entree to and visibility in Louis XV’s court.

Christopher Maltman (Figaro) and Lawrence Brownlee (Almaviva). (Ken Howard/Met)
Christopher Maltman (Figaro) and Lawrence Brownlee (Almaviva). (Ken Howard/Met)

At Versailles, the attractive young man caught the eye of a Mme. Madeleine-Catherine Aubertin, who brought him a watch to repair. Pierre ingratiated himself to her elderly husband, and she soon persuaded her ailing spouse to allow Pierre to purchase his secretarial position in the court. Two months later, Pierre’s new friend was widowed. They married barely a year later, and Pierre adopted the aristocratic-sounding name “de Beaumarchais” from the parcel of land his wife had inherited from her late husband. She died unexpectedly only 10 months later, unfortunately before the marriage contract had been registered. By French law, her family inherited her property, leaving the young man in the cold and in debt. He was just 24 years old.

But Beaumarchais became music teacher to the king’s four daughters and made the acquaintance of the banker Joseph Pâris Duverney, uncle of the husband of Mme. de Pompadour. Duverney took the young man under his wing, lending him money and teaching him about finance. Under Duverney’s guidance, he became wealthy and was able to secure another court appointment.

Marilyn Horne in the 1991 world of 'Ghosts.' (Winnie Klotz/Met)
Marilyn Horne in the 1991 premiere of ‘Ghosts.’ (Winnie Klotz/Met)

For the rest of his life, Beaumarchais juggled diplomatic assignments, business ventures, literature, and women. He was married three times, twice to wealthy older women who died within a year of the wedding. His younger third wife, with whom he lived for 12 years before marrying her, bore him a daughter and outlived him by many years. There were bankruptcies, imprisonments, foreign missions, several romantic scandals, and at least one duel, resulting in his rival’s death. He also preserved the legacy of Voltaire, purchasing the rights after the philosopher’s death and publishing the works in Germany to avoid the French censors.

Although a court insider, Beaumarchais’s political leanings were popular; he channeled his republican disposition by persuading Louis XVI to support the American quest for independence. An admiring, declassified report in the CIA Historical Review Program provides fascinating details of how Beaumarchais circumvented British controls to supply arms to the American colonies. It seems odd that he didn’t become friendly with Benjamin Franklin, who arrived in France in 1777 seeking French support for the American cause. But Beaumarchais’s rivals for the arms business received Franklin on his arrival in France, and somehow the American never found time to meet with his like-minded French counterpart.

Becoming a Playwright

Amidst all this frenetic diplomatic and financial activity, Beaumarchais began writing the stage works that became his greatest legacy. He had put together theatrical sketches for private parties; his enduring characters, Figaro and Almaviva, first made their appearance in 1765 in a one-act intermezzo, The Sacristan. His first full-length play was Eugénie, based on his sister’s unhappy marital saga: Beaumarchais had spent 10 months in Madrid combining business and information gathering with fraternal intercession with her reluctant noble fiancé. The “moral drama” was performed at the Comédie-Française in 1767. Clocking in at five hours, it was a limited success; his next play, The Two Friends (1770), was a flop.

Milhaud's 'La mere coupable' at Theater an der Wien. (Courtesy of Theater an der Wien)
Milhaud’s ‘La mère coupable’ at Theater an der Wien. (Courtesy of Theater an der Wien)

For several years afterwards, he was absorbed in lawsuits around the estate of his mentor Duverney, who died in 1770.  Duverney’s legal heir accused Beaumarchais of forging a contract forgiving his debts to the older man. A verdict in Beaumarchais’s favor was overturned by a court official paid off by the heir. Ruined, Beaumarchais exposed the judge’s corruption in a memoir that salvaged his reputation, reversed the judgment, and earned the admiration of Europe’s reading public, including Voltaire, as well as hefty royalties. Then, in 1774, he was called before the court, stripped of his privileges, and forbidden to publish further on the subject. He was cleared of all charges relating to the Duverney matter only in 1778.

During this eventful period, he wrote his first comedy, The Barber of Seville, or The Useless Precaution. Originally conceived as an opéra comique but rejected by the Comédie Italienne, the leading producer of this genre, a spoken version was premiered at the Comédie-Française in 1775. Poorly received at first, after fast revisions the comedy became a runaway success, despite a subversive plot in which a valet, Figaro, helps thwart a nobleman’s designs on his legal ward, Rosine. The title character, cheerful, quick-witted, energetic, and resourceful, was clearly autobiographical.

A second comedy, The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro, was even more daring in its portrayal of a count outwitted by his servants. Completed in 1778 and accepted for production in 1781, production was held up after a private reading revealed to Louis XVI the danger the play posed to the social order. After Beaumarchais changed the setting to Spain, it was staged in 1784 to enormous acclaim and remains in the active repertoire of the Comédie-Française. But Figaro’s famous monologue questioning the aristocracy’s birthright posed a direct challenge to the courtly audiences who cheered the play. The play may not have caused the French Revolution, but it certainly was prescient.

'Count-and-Cherubin,' unattributed etching.
‘Count-and-Cherubin,’ unattributed etching.

The third leg of the Figaro trilogy, The Other Tartuffe, or The Guilty Mother, was written in 1792, but not made into an opera until the 1960s, as La mère coupable by Darius Milhaud to a libretto by his wife, Madeleine.  It is a more conventional sentimental drama. Sixty years of hard living, reversals of fortune, and romantic escapades find Beaumarchais in a more mellow and contemplative mode. The Other Tartuffe settles some scores — the title refers to Moliere’s enduringly popular history of a hypocrite, currently playing in Paris.

The machinations of a conniving villain Bégearss, transparently a stand-in for one of Beaumarchais’s real-life adversaries, Nicolas Bergasse, threaten the happiness of the Almaviva family, but he is discredited through machinations of Figaro and Suzanne. Instead of having to marry Bégearss, Almaviva’s love child, Florine, is free to marry Rosine and Cherubin’s son, Léon. In one stroke calumny is discredited, youthful indiscretions forgiven, and young love fulfilled. It’s all a bit saccharine but reflects the more emotionally demonstrative aesthetic of the time. The Guilty Mother was given at the Théatre du Marais and probably owed what success it enjoyed to being a sequel to Beaumarchais’ two earlier hit comedies.

His Luck Falters

Le Figaro newspaper logo, 1826.
Le Figaro newspaper logo, 1826. (Bibliotheque nationale de France)

Given his esteemed position at court, Beaumarchais was lucky to have survived 1789, but his luck seems to have broken. He was imprisoned in 1792 and escaped only a week before the storming of the Bastille. After another failed venture supplying arms and corn to the Dutch, Beaumarchais was unjustly framed for treason and landed again in prison. His mistress got him out of jail, and he spent two lonely years exiled in Hamburg. In 1796, Beaumarchais was able to return to France, where he remarried Marie-Thérèse (who legally had been required to divorce her spouse upon his exile) and spent his final years quietly with wife and daughter. He died in his sleep in 1799, aged 66, after an evening of playing checkers, a late life passion, with a friend. He is buried at Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, and a statue of him was erected in the Marais, near his last home.

Every French high school student learns who Beaumarchais is: a sanitized four-paragraph biography appears in the study guide for the high school exit exams. But his Barber is an avatar for the modern Frenchman: charming, clever, versatile, quick witted, cynical but good-humored, resourceful, and resilient. Ten years after the premiere of Rossini’s smash hit, Il barbiere di Siviglia, the satirical newspaper Le Figaro was founded in 1826, borrowing the name and the image of Beaumarchais’s Spanish barber. Le Figaro endures as France’s oldest newspaper (though now conservative), and anyone with its smart phone app hears that three-note chime “Fi-ga-ro” — “fils Ca-ron” — with every breaking news alert. It’s an apt reminder of the author, spy, businessman, and lover who helped launch modern France.

Susan Brodie writes about music, the arts and life from New York City and Paris. Follow her at @Susan Brodie (Twitter) and Toi Toi Toi!