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Suite from Figaro Gets a Divorce

Elena Langer’s opera Figaro Gets a Divorce is based on Ödön von Horváth’s 1936 play, which draws on characters invented by Pierre Beaumarchais, the playwright behind Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and Rossini’s The Barber of Seville.

Elena Langer was born December 8, 1974, in Moscow, Russia, and lives in London. She wrote her opera Figaro Gets a Divorce for Welsh National Opera in Cardiff, where it was premiered February 21, 2016. The libretto is by David Pountney. The Seattle Symphony Orchestra commissioned the orchestral suite from the opera and premiered it in January 2020 under Maxim Emelyanychev’s direction. The Boston Symphony Orchestra first performed it at Tanglewood on August 14, 2021, under Anna Rakitina’s direction.

The score for the orchestral suite from Figaro Gets a Divorce calls for 2 flutes (2nd doubling piccolo), 2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons (2nd doubling contrabassoon), 2 horns, 2 trumpets, 2 trombones, tuba, timpani, percussion (2 players: crotales, glockenspiel, xylophone, vibraphone, tubular bells, police whistle, triangle, sleigh bells, suspended cymbal, crash cymbals, tam-tam, gong, maracas, ratchet, rain stick, whip, claves, guiro, wood blocks, tambourine, bongos, side drum, tenor drum), piano/celesta, accordion, and strings (first and second violins, violas, cellos, and double basses). The suite is about 18 minutes long.

The Moscow-born composer Elena Langer studied piano and musicology at Gnessin Music College before attending the Moscow Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where she studied composition with Yuri Vorontsov. She moved to England, where she is now based, to study at the Royal College of Music with Julian Anderson. She also attended the Royal Academy of Music and has worked with Simon Bainbridge, Sofia Gubaidulina, Jonathan Harvey, and others. Although she has written for a wide range of media, opera and music theater have been Langer’s primary focus since early in her career. While still at the Royal Academy of Music, she was appointed Jerwood Composer in Association with London’s Almeida Theatre and also wrote the first of four works in collaboration with the poet Glyn Maxwell, Ariadne, which was commissioned by Carnegie Hall and was premiered as part of the Osvaldo Golijov and Dawn Upshaw Young Artists Concert in Zankel Hall in 2009. Her association with Upshaw led further to a commission from Bard College (where Upshaw is on the faculty) for her 2012 opera Four Sisters. Her other Glyn Maxwell collaborations include the chamber operas The Lion’s Face and The Girl of Sand.

Langer was a 2009 Composition Fellow of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood Music Center, where she worked with Michael Gandolfi and Augusta Read Thomas. Ariadne was performed there that summer. Following her Tanglewood fellowship the BSO commissioned her chamber-music work Five Reflections on Water for the Boston Symphony Chamber Players, which the ensemble premiered in March 2019 and reprised twice since. A new work co-commissioned by the BSO and the London Philharmonic Orchestra, The Dong with a Luminous Nose, for chorus, orchestra, and solo cello, will be premiered by the LPO at London’s Royal Festival Hall in March 2023, the BSO’s performances taking place in a future season.

Other commissions have come from Zurich Opera, Warsaw Autumn Festival, and Russia’s Homecoming Chamber Music, Music Spring, and Moscow Autumn festivals, among others, as well as many from within England. Her most recently completed opera is The Suicide, based on Nikolay Erdman’s 1928 play of the same name, commissioned for Moscow’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre. Last week her orchestra work Leonora’s Dream, a commission from the New England Conservatory of Music, was premiered by the NEC Philharmonia under Hugo Wolff’s direction at Jordan Hall. That work is a response to another opera: Beethoven’s Fidelio.

For several years Elena Langer worked frequently with Welsh National Opera and its artistic director (2011-2019) David Pountney, who wrote the librettos for two of her operas—Figaro Gets a Divorce, staged by WNO in 2016, and Beauty and Sadness, based on Yasunari Kawabata’s eponymous final novel, which was premiered in Hong Kong in spring 2019. WNO also produced her Rhondda Rips It Up!, a vaudeville/cabaret-influenced comedy about the suffragette movement.

Figaro Gets a Divorce is not the cheekily postmodern mashup one might surmise from the title; rather, Pountney’s libretto is based fundamentally on two unimpeachable sources. One is the third play, The Guilty Mother, of the Pierre Beaumarchais trilogy that opens with The Barber of Seville (1773) and continues with The Marriage of Figaro (1778), plays that were the bases for, respectively, Rossini’s and Mozart’s wildly successful operas. The second source is Ödön von Horváth’s 1936 play Figaro läßt sich scheiden (Figaro Gets Divorced), in which Figaro and Susanna, ostensibly out of loyalty, flee their unnamed country with the Count and Countess Almaviva at the onset of a bloody people’s revolution. Horváth (1901-1938), the son of a diplomat of Hungarian extraction, was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire and wrote plays critical of the cultural and political situation in mostly German-speaking Central Europe between the First and Second world wars. A lifelong exile of sorts, Horváth moved to Paris as Hitler consolidated power and stripped non-Aryans of their rights. (He died in a bizarre accident when a lightning-struck tree on the Champs-Élysées dropped a branch on his head.) His complex characters and situations pit everyman/everywoman characters against faceless social structures, forcing Hobson’s choices upon individuals—by no means innocent but seldom heinous—trying to live “normal” lives. In Langer’s opera the independent-minded Figaro, once critical of the aristocracy, sings to Susanna, “The barber will survive; the rebel will die!”

Horváth’s far less slapstick, but not uncomedic, treatment of Beaumarchais’s broadly drawn archetypes updates and darkens the class-warfare aspects already present in the 18th-century plays—which, as we know, were themselves subject to censorship in a Europe on the edge of genuine revolution. The crux of Figaro Gets a Divorce, both the play and the opera, is a domestic conflict layered atop a social one. Having split from the Count, Figaro and Susanna are proprietors of a thriving hair stylist’s shop in a provincial town. Now that they’re independent, Susanna longs for a child, but pragmatic and cynical Figaro refuses to bring new life into an unsettled, dangerous world. This leads to a rift. A complementary rift between the Count and Countess involves her having had a son, Serafin, by the onetime pageboy Cherubino (Mozart’s “young cavalier”). Into these rifts, the adult Cherubino—once presumed dead and now known as The Cherub—and an official known as The Major insinuate themselves. The Count’s ward Angelika is in love with Serafin, but the Major uses a big lie about their patrimony to attempt to win Angelika for himself. Susanna becomes pregnant by The Cherub, now a predatory adult rather than an oversexed teen, the proprietor of a seedy nightclub. As an example of the moral ambiguities at work, the Major sympathizes with the self-made Figaro, in part because he is himself a double agent in league with the rebels in Figaro’s homeland.

The six-movement suite from the opera is a series of character and atmosphere sketches. The opening movement is the most abstract, illustrating the instability of the world in which these events take place. The Love Song between Angelika and Serafin (given its own scene in the opera) is interrupted by brief moments of confrontation, indicators of Serafin’s intention to take part in the armed struggle. The Escape encapsulates the recurring frantic music that accompanies the refugees’ constant sense of danger. The Major, marked “Jazzy, sleazy,” features accordion, violin, and piano solos in capturing the role’s smarmy nature. The fifth movement (Susanna and Cherubino. Less of a love song) is from the first-act scene in which Susanna, drinking in The Cherub’s bar, allows herself to be drawn into his nightclub world. The heading for the finale, A Mad Day, refers obliquely to the frenetic “mad day” of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and serves as a rhythmically driven summary of the opera as a whole; its syncopated occasional ostinato is the basis for Susanna and Cherubino’s nightclub act.

While there are stylistic references throughout, Langer rests only lightly on pastiche, although Horváth’s play serves as license, perhaps, to allude. In the opera, flights of lyricism for the voices are balanced by the inevitable dissonances and percussions of war and anxiety. These contrast satisfyingly in the suite, with the imaginative orchestration—interesting high/low doublings, virtuoso solo writing, percussion, accordion—suggesting vaguely Central European, mid-20th-century urban life and reflecting the layered, nuanced, and all-too-persistently timely narrative.

Robert Kirzinger

Composer and writer Robert Kirzinger is the Boston Symphony’s Director of Program Publications.