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Meet Me at the Met, Part II

<I>The Marriage of Figaro</I>

Does anyone remember his or her initial exposure to Mozart? I am almost certain that, in most cases, this would have taken the form of a music lesson. The scene: an underpaid teacher in a pleated wool skirt leads a group of children through books and tableaux of oil portraiture-the powdered teen genius (those imperious eyes, that feminine blush), accompanied by several skips through the major concertos, the late operas, a luxurious pause in the midst of one of those sorrowful arguments between a clarinet and an oboe. Wolfgang Amadeus. Vienna, the court of Joseph II. Blazing talent, lots of fun, pauper's grave. Genius and accessible. A simple lesson fixing a singular talent in his proper place among the firmament of genius.

I think of Woody Allen's Manhattan confirming as much during the scene in which he lists all things-Jupiter Symphony included-which make our poor lives worth living. Its mention, for me, recalled the experience of sitting in Miss Richey's classroom with her beanbag chairs and turntables and LP records of Leonard Bernstein's concerts for young people. And her pleated wool skirts, which should be discussed somewhere else. But then again, Mozart's tangible physicality and contour, his wild palette of feeling (not to mention all that we might intuit about Wolfgang the rake) pulls the sensual from us like nostalgia.

Le Nozze di Figaro is sensual like a wedding cake. It is superbly made, with variations in the middle, often too rich, often too poignant. I was sitting in the same enviable press seat the Metropolitan Opera had given me for Puccini's Turandot and eating my way through Figaro like someone who does not wish to eat a proper, balanced meal again. I felt like a fat spoiled child with expectations of a pudding. The music itself, I vaguely remembered (and was happy to learn again), is prodigious and dazzling: major triplets bounce for puerile schemes, duets widen like appetites into sextets, an even harmonic lyric is sung in two parts-mistress and servant-and perfectly parallel lines run breathless to the same suitor. God, but it's great fun! Perhaps this fun partially comes from the pleasure of self-evidence: the inner workings of the score, the marriage of line to character, is so clearly presented that it's no wonder Mozart, in his Figaro phase, gets such tremendously successful exposure in grammar school. It is like giving a child cake for the first time-no one need explain how simply, addictively good it is.

On this particular night, the Metropolitan's 422nd production of Figaro, my section of orchestra-level seating had been listening to a man in row D commenting between acts. He was insistent, alluring and a wee bit off-putting. An Englishman in his late sixties, his voice seemed cured with public-school elocution, Powers whiskey and contempt-the sort of man who makes a living writing aphorisms.

At second intermission, a woman with large hair and a Texan accent asked, "Isn't it wonderful?" He replied, "It used to be." That shut her up.

The Englishman, a director, explained how he had staged Figaro"at the National" a few years ago in a successful production of great subtlety, etc., without a bloody surfeit of winks and asides like tonight's rot; and furthermore, Beaumarchais-the French dramatist responsible for le matériel-needed to be excavated at serious length in order for a remote understanding of the class politics that gave this opera its distinction to emerge. And furthermore, no amount of production values, however sublime, could improve upon a staging that made Mozart seem obvious.

"But," the Texas woman said.

"I'm sorry," the Englishman said, shrugging. "No buts."

The final act began in a parlour lit with late-afternoon light, the light of Sargent and Hopper, of intense bourgeois dreaming. I understand that I do not live in a classless society. I do not wish to. The upended servant-master equations of Beaumarchais' script-which gave Marie-Antoinette such pause and which, according to history without nuance, led right into the Terror-do not shock and unnerve audiences with punctuated class dread; not these days. Western civilization has evolved, leapt over the masters and the servants-the valet Figaro chases his fiancée around his master's estate, mugging for an audience he hopes can see him, but whom he cannot see-and we revel in class-quarrelling quaintness. Yet this quaintness is a lie. We are all bounders, acquisitive and yearning, continuously desirous of leaping over others and reaching the next refinement, be it cultural, spiritual, or economic.

As the Englishman drawled on, class resentment rose in me like a swell of patriotism. This was a little odd---I'm not in the habit of defending Texans with large hair. We were all sharing a fine section of Metropolitan real estate where one could glean sizable satisfaction from not having to sit in the cheap seats and where, I think, frank discussions of this kind were to be expected, even encouraged. But across my mind flitted the figure of Cherubino, an adolescent page so full of love and lust that everyone on stage (master and servant alike) dismisses him with pats of condescension. His solos are among the undisputed high points of a score so beautiful that it has no ceiling; and it is Cherubino's innocence, his ignorance and obviousness, in which the audience will find a comfortable home-happy, trusting and ravished with hope.

The Met's production is the sort of work that favours hope over truth-if you know what I mean-leaning toward a peculiar view of class politics from the perspective of wilful wonderment and indiscretion. This Figaro presents life through the eyes of an innocent. The rather pedagogical approach seems so suited to the vehicle of opera, so obvious, that it goes easily overlooked. This was part of the evening's gentle reminder. At the opera's end, everyone learns a lesson; one that has to do with love being an equalizing force and how we're all captive to the same stirrings of need no matter who we are-that a robust love-filled desire, like Cherubino's hope, is quite possibly what makes the world spin. A lesson so obvious, even a child could understand.

"Well," Texas mumbled-humbled-but the rest of her conversation vanished. The English director took up the slack. Vainly I tried recalling a detail from Mozart's biography, how he and his librettist cut a sharp and rabble-rousing speech from the original script to more fully explore variations of class and love in the music, not the language-the better to excise the politics and uphold the art. I stopped myself, uncomfortable with this class-conscious desire to put an Englishman-whom I couldn't help thinking of as superior, urbane and schooled in ways I am not-in his place.