(Previous section here.)
And the thing is, I think we can. Sellars has placed the action in Manhattan, which is one of those places that is seen as iconically American – but which is also a place where you often see a fairly terrifying contrast of wealth and poverty. The dramatic widget that that this thing is turning on is the assumption some Americans make that we are a country without social classes. If this were true, Le Nozze di Figaro, with its lecherous nobleman and sometimes loyal, sometimes subversive servants, would not make as much sense – and yet it does make sense. The idea that Susanna’s monstrously wealthy employer, knowing that she and Figaro don’t have much money, might try to trade cash for sexual favors? Or the idea that employees have to bow and scrape before their bosses, and even provide presents out of their own earnings? Not so unfamiliar. The comparison doesn’t track exactly, of course. But it tracks enough that the point is made.
And one might go so far as to say that the little gap between the eighteenth-century and the twentieth that the setting reveals drives the point home all the more. The fact that it doesn’t quite make perfect sense draws your attention to the slightly terrifying fact that it almost makes sense. When Figaro reaches the part in “non più andrai” where he’s talking about the bullets that will whistle past Cherubino’s head, he has taken a carton of eggs from the fridge and is hurling them at the wall above the Count’s head; the Count cowers and hides his head in his nightshirt; not long before, at the line about having little money, Sanford Sylvan (Figaro) draws the musical line out, and the count gives him this “knock it off!” look. Almaviva is a little afraid (his reaction is somewhere between “what the fuck?!” and “this is annoying”) but unlike Figaro and Cherubino, he has money, and the only things that are going to be aimed at his head are eggs. Figaro can upend power relations to a certain extent, but only in certain ways, and only up to a point – and this is almost more poignant in 1990 than it would have been in 1790.
Along similar lines, one of the things that I never really thought about before was how the beginning of Act II (in any performance of the opera, not just this one) sets up a similar, but slightly softer-edged dynamic with the two women. The act begins bang off with “porgi, amor,” – i.e. the countess having an extended moment of “woe!”. But what you literally don’t hear until the recitative that comes after is that this moment of woe (Jayne West as the Countess sings this prettily and with convincing dramatic force) is basically an extended and rather self-pitying interruption of what Susanna was telling her – the way the music and drama are written, we don’t even know it’s an interruption until after she’s done with it and she asks Susanna to finish her story. Which is kind of interesting.
(Next section here.)