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la mère coupable

1 january 2021

La mère coupable is Beaumarchais' "other" Figaro play, the one that isn't The Barber of Seville or The Marriage of Figaro. They make an unusual trilogy, written over many years. Their characters age far more than the many years it took Beaumarchais to write all three.

In The Barber of Seville, Almaviva and Rosina are young lovers who marry. In The Marriage of Figaro, the barber isn't that young any more, but he will marry Susanna, after sorting out the problems of several couples including the long-married Almaviva and Rosina. In La mère coupable, both couples have been married a long time, and the task for Figaro is to sort out the romantic problems of the next generation.

Confusion about parentage drives the plot of La mère coupable. Young Léon is apparently the son of the Count and Countess, and young Florestine is apparently the Count's ward. They love each other very much. But the Count has had suspicions about Léon's parentage, and early in the play they are confirmed: his heir is actually the son of the long-dead Cherubino, the frisky young fellow from The Marriage of Figaro. Hence Rosina is the mère coupable, the guilty mother.

Meanwhile the Count has no doubts about Florestine's parentage: she is his natural daughter. The young pair are still free to love each other, but the truth is revealed asymmetrically, and for a while the pall of incest falls over their romance.

There must be a blocking character, the repellent Bégearss, who plans to grab Florestine for himself and scavenge the Count's remaining fortune. Bégearss (whose impossible name is supposed to be Irish and I can only imagine was Beaumarchais' version of "Big-Arse"), is a born hypocrite: the alternative title for the play is L'Autre Tartuffe. Naturally the only character who sees through Bégearss' false front is Figaro, who must scheme how best to expose him.

All ends well enough, after protracted business involving letters and jewelry and receipts, but it's so protracted that we see before long why this is the "other" Figaro play; it's just not that good. And because it's not that good, La mère coupable is not the basis of a world-famous opera.

There haven't even been many attempts to convert the play into an opera, but late in the 20th century there was a famous attempt by composer John Corigliano and librettist William M. Hoffman. Extrinsic problems plagued The Ghosts of Versailles and delayed its premiere by a decade, and critics didn't like it much when it appeared, but the opera is a fascinating postmodern take on Beaumarchais, Mozart, Rossini, the intersections of fantasy, fiction, and history – and on opera in general.

To acknowledge the problems right away: critics of The Ghosts of Versailles don't like the opera because it is too long, too unwieldy, and too mixed in tone and style. And it really is too long and unwieldy. Every number goes on too long, and repeats itself for no reason (which happens in Mozart and Rossini, too, so Ghosts is true to its forbears). But if you positively value contrasts of tone and style, you will value The Ghosts of Versailles – though you may have to be a Beaumarchais fan to follow the myriad things that are going on.

As The Ghosts of Versailles opens, it is … well, it doesn't matter when it is, because everybody's dead, and they will be dead a long time. The court of Louis XVI is making their bored way through eternity, but Marie Antoinette still suffers post-traumatic stress from the guillotine.

Enter Beaumarchais. Though just as dead as the royals, he is far livelier for some reason, and is smitten with Marie Antoinette. He longs to reverse her fate and move with her to America and live happily ever after: maybe in Philadelphia! But how to do this? Beaumarchais decides to write the Mère-coupable opera that nobody else has bothered to write, and to insert a subplot where Almaviva and Figaro sell those plot-point jewels from the play and use the proceeds to smuggle Marie Antoinette overseas.

We move fluidly between a weird ghostly modernist opera and a Mozartian opera-within-the-opera. Then Bégearss becomes a bloodthirsty revolutionary clamoring for the Queen's head, and we're in some French Revolution opera like Andrea Chénier or Dialogues des Carmélites. Figaro tips to what Beaumarchais is up to and starts interfering in the plot he is supposed to further. So Beaumarchais leaves the main opera and become a character in the nested opera, where he suddenly finds he has no control over the very story he's writing …

Well, I did say it was long and unwieldy. But The Ghosts of Versailles is clever, and it's not hard to stay seat-belted through its twists and turns. Everything works out, though not in a saccharine way – in fact, things become a little too fraught, given the farcical setup in the first 3/4 of the opera. But eventually, our various characters get sorted into the spheres of existence where they truly belong.

I watched The Ghosts of Versailles in a charming and energetic version performed in 2019 in Versailles itself. It is an English-language opera and the singers were mostly young Americans, but the production went over well with its French audience. It is an opera that deserves more revivals.

Beamarchais. La mère coupable. 1792. iBooks.