The Marriage of Figaro – Susanna – A Model of Strong Women in Mozart’s operas
by Luke Howard
In looking at Mozart’s entire operatic oeuvre, it’s clear that he didn’t shy away from presenting strong female characters who are spirited, smart, morally grounded, and daring. From Konstanze (Abduction) to Susanna and the Countess (Figaro) and Pamina (Magic Flute), Mozart provides plenty of operatic evidence of the increasingly influential role strong women were playing in 18th-century society. This was something of a parallel to the increased political influence of figures like Catherine the Great, the Empress Maria Theresa, and Marie Antoinette. Both high- and low-born, Mozart’s heroines often display the same kind of noble, courageous demeanor that his best heroes demonstrate, and all the more impressively given the general gender inequity of European society at the time. In The Magic Flute, premiered the year after Così, it is Pamina that proves essential to Tamino’s successful negotiation of the trials and elevation to the highest order of nobility. Of all the characters in The Marriage of Figaro, Susanna clearly demonstrates superior wit, intellect, and understanding of human nature. The Countess, on the other hand (who, as “Rosina” in The Barber of Seville, used to be as quick-witted and clever as Susanna), remains faithful and morally upright, but has had much of her formerly feisty spirit dulled by a marriage to husband who wants to wander.
Suiting the music to the character (as well as to the specific singer) was a particular gift of Mozart’s. You can tell as much about a character in a Mozart opera by the style of music they’re given as you can by their words and actions. At the beginning of The Marriage of Figaro, for example, Susanna is immediately portrayed as a strong, smart, willful character. As the curtain opens, Figaro is measuring their new bedroom to see if the marriage bed will fit into it. As his music is very focused and businesslike—“Five, ten, twenty, thirty…”—Susanna enters, delighted with the new hat she will wear at their wedding, and sings a sinuous melodic line quite at odds with Figaro’s punctuated numbers. But within the first two minutes, not only does she convince Figaro to stop his work and pay attention to her, but she manages to convince him to “sing her tune” both figuratively and literally. Figaro’s subservience to Susanna is represented not only by his actions, but also by his shift from short musical motifs to Susanna’s fluidly flowing melody.
Once Susanna has demonstrated her willpower, she then shows her superior intellect and common sense. Figaro is delighted at the convenient location of their new bedroom—right between the Count’s and the Countess’s rooms. It’s left to Susanna to explain to her confident but relatively dim-witted fiancé that it creates the perfect opportunity for the Count to make scandalous advances towards her. All he has to do is send Figaro away on an errand, and she is left alone in the room right next door to the Count’s bedroom.
While still in Act I, Susanna finds herself in a tricky situation, and uses her wits to regain the upper hand over her social superiors. She has heard the pre-pubescent Cherubino’s breathless, hormone-driven paean to the female sex, but is then forced to hide him under a sheet on a chair in her room because they hear the Count coming. The Count, unaware that there is a hidden visitor who can hear everything, begins to confess his burgeoning attraction to Susanna, who tries to stop him. As they hear more footsteps approaching, Susanna has to hide the Count as well… behind the chair in which Cherubino is still hiding. The indiscreet, manipulative Basilio enters, also thinking Susanna is alone in the room, and says too much, prompting the Count to reveal himself (though neither the Count nor Basilio know that Cherubino is still hidden in the chair!).
Emphasizing the delicious dramatic opportunities of this scenario, Mozart gives us one of his remarkable ensembles, where the characters each declare their impressions in musically distinct styles, yet they cohere beautifully into an emotionally multifaceted trio. The Count is determined and stentorian with firm, slow rhythms indicating his resolve. Basilio’s pleading, descending motifs express his simpering apologetic tone. And Susanna—nervous and breathless with fear—sings in short, choppy phrases.
But, like the smart woman she is, Susanna knows what to do to regain control of the situation. She faints (or at least pretends to). As the Count and Basilio rush to her aid, they take the opportunity to get their hands—literally—on Susanna’s body, and begin to help her to the chair… in which Cherubino is still hiding! The musical style for both men here shifts significantly. They are no longer respectively authoritative and apologetic, but join together in a hushed, seductive duet over Susanna. She regains consciousness just as she is about to be put in the chair that hides Cherubino, and is immediately able to put the Count and Basilio on the defensive. Within a couple of minutes, Susanna has transformed a delicate, potentially scary situation into one in which she has the upper hand. The scene does continue to develop, and Cherubino is revealed. But for the moment, at least, Susanna has demonstrated, through words and music, her quick wit, her ability to think clearly under pressure, and her knack at influencing the opinions and behaviors of her superiors. That character portrait crucially inflects our understanding of Susanna’s role throughout the remainder of the opera, and will then act as a model for Mozart’s later operatic female roles.
Dr. Howard began his formal music studies in Sydney, Australia, where he received the Bachelor of Music Education degree with an emphasis in piano. He then earned a Master of Arts in Musicology from BYU in 1994, and a Ph.D. in Musicology from the University of Michigan in 1997. Dr. Howard has previously served on the music faculties at Minnesota State University Moorhead and the University of Missouri Kansas City. In 2002, he joined the faculty of the School of Music at Brigham Young University where he teaches music history and Western cultural history.