First "The Barber of Seville," then "The Marriage of Figaro." Then what? Whether we are speaking of the plays of Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais or the operas they inspired, the Figaro triptych many have dreamed of — including Beaumarchais himself — remains an elusive goal. On Friday the Whitsun edition of the Salzburg Festival revives an opera that just might serve as the missing third panel: "I Due Figaro" ("The Two Figaros"), by Saverio Mercadante.
The commander in chief of the project is Riccardo Muti, in his fifth and final year of a milestone survey of the neglected musical legacy of his native Naples. Ut Orpheus Edizione, an Italian house, is in the process of publishing critical editions of the resurrected scores.
A quick recap may be in order. The sparkling "Barber of Seville," a comedy of the ancien régime, introduces Figaro as fixer and factotum to the dashing young Count Almaviva in his quest to snatch the orphaned heiress Rosina from the clutches of the guardian who keeps her under lock and key. (Rossini's triumphant version, the fifth of six, opened to catcalls in Rome in 1816.)
Heralding the French Revolution, the incendiary "Marriage of Figaro" depicts Figaro, now Almaviva's valet, dancing as fast as he can to keep his bride Susanna — Countess Rosina's maid — from the clutches of their master. All the while, the pageboy Cherubino keeps the household in a fever state, fluttering around every woman in sight. (Mozart's celestial adaptation, rushed onto the Vienna stage two years after the play opened in Paris, evidently preempted potential rivals.)
"I Due Figaro" — a product of several years Mercadante spent in the operatic backwaters Spain and Portugal, and untouched since its first run in Madrid in 1835 — picks up the Almaviva family saga a generation later. The Count is arranging a marriage for his daughter, Inez, who unbeknownst to him has fallen in love with Cherubino, now a colonel in the Spanish military. In a brazen ploy to win her, Cherubino presents himself to the Count under the name Figaro, in a costume copied from Figaro's, supplanting Figaro in the Count's favor.
Yes, this is the Almaviva gang, all right, whipping up fresh chaos in vintage style. The scenario derives from "Les Deux Figaro" (1790), an unauthorized sequel to "The Marriage of Figaro" by the actor-playwright Honoré-Antoine Richaud-Martelly, who had played Almaviva, though not to Beaumarchais's satisfaction. The libretto, in elegant Italian, is by Felice Romani, Bellini's partner in "La Sonnambula" and "Norma."
Opportunities for eavesdropping and hiding places abound, including not one but two wardrobes. Reminiscences of "Le Nozze di Figaro," especially, pop up frequently, as when the Countess muses on happier days or Susanna wraps the Count around her little finger. Most important, extended action sequences provide the canvas for the large-scale, multisection ensembles that are the glory of Mozart's collaborations with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, a feature they perfected off the bat in "Le Nozze di Figaro."
The world remembers Beaumarchais as the heir of Molière, but he was also much more: a clockmaker and inventor of genius (his plots make the head spin), a feisty litigant, an arms trader, a music teacher to French princesses and a devoted ladies' man. His eventful personal life even inspired a play by Goethe ("Clavigo"), in which he appears under his own name.
But who needed Goethe? In the first two Figaro plays Beaumarchais painted no fewer than three self-portraits. The nimble-witted Figaro and the adolescent skirt-chaser Cherubino bear nicknames from Beaumarchais's own boyhood: Figaro, his patronymic ("fils Caron," after his father André-Charles Caron); Chérubin, an allusion to his legendary erotic precocity. The increasingly willful and isolated Almaviva ("lively spirit") reflects the social aspirations of a commoner who in his late 20s (more than a decade before he wrote the plays) bought his way into the ruling class.
To posterity Beaumarchais's name is synonymous with appetite and zest for the kinks of the human comedy, but as postrevolutionary France lurched from disaster to disaster, his outlook darkened. (Failing health and personal grievances did the same for Molière.) It was in this mood that Beaumarchais cranked out his third Figaro play, "La Mère Coupable" ("The Guilty Mother"), which opened in 1792, two years after "Les Deux Figaro," on the eve of the Terror. From a single night's liaison with Cherubino 20 years before the curtain rises, the Countess — the culpable mother of the title — has borne a son. Now the Count is seeking proof for his long-festering suspicions. A mirror of bone-deep disillusionment, the play moves from dyspeptic cynicism to desperate, born-again euphoria that rings sentimental and totally false.
Few but scholars and antiquarians have ever had much time for "La Mère Coupable," but over the last half century at least four composers have tried their luck with it, most prominently John Corigliano in "The Ghosts of Versailles" (1991), which mashes up the play with the histories of Beaumarchais, Marie Antoinette and much else besides in a monumental construction that does not ride on Mozart's or Rossini's coattails but must stand or fall on its own.
On a lighter note Massenet's fragile, star-driven "Chérubin" (1905) — likewise based on a play — presents the ex-pageboy on his 17th birthday juggling lady loves like a nascent Don Giovanni. But none of Beaumarchais's other characters show up, and as a sequel to Mozart's and Rossini's masterpieces, "Chérubin" scarcely exists. (Despite the autobiographical connotations, Beaumarchais insisted that Cherubino be played by a young and very pretty woman; Mozart, Mercadante, Massenet and Corigliano followed suit. In a sense, Cherubino never grows up.)
Figaro, Susanna and the Almavivas are all present in Odon von Horvath's Brechtian comedy "Figaro Gets a Divorce" (1937). The play attracted the stringent German modernist Giselher Klebe, whose operatic version appeared in 1963. But general audiences have never taken his idiom to heart. Today any halfway competent 19th-century composer goes down easier.
And with "I Due Figaro" as with "The Barber of Seville," there are competing settings to choose from. The first, by Michele Carafa, a lifelong friend of Rossini and an occasional contributor to his operas, seems to have excited no lasting interest at the second-tier festival Rossini in Wildbad in 2006 or on DVD. Grove Music Online cites two more, which show no sign of returning.
So the coast seems clear for this fourth setting by Mercadante, who has been in Mr. Muti's sights recently on grounds having nothing to do with Beaumarchais or his disciples.
"Over the last four years at the Whitsun Festival in Salzburg we pointed up the links between Mozart and the Neapolitan school," Mr. Muti said recently in New York. "To close the series I wanted to showcase a musician of the Neapolitan school who points decisively towards the world of the 19th century in its full flower. Of course I thought right away of Mercadante. My first thought was that we should do one of his tragedies, maybe 'Il Bravo,' which made such an impression on the young Verdi."
Then musicologists in Madrid sent Mr. Muti the newly reconstituted score of "I Due Figaro."
"I knew Mercadante only as a serious composer, a composer of great severity," he said. "I had no idea of his flair for comedy. These pages came to me like a bolt from the blue."
Mr. Muti spoke warmly too of the brilliant writing for orchestra and voices, promising volleys of ravishing virtuosity. Like Rossini's Almaviva (but unlike Mozart's) Mercadante's is a coloratura tenor whose fancywork presupposes the high-wire artistry of a Juan Diego Flórez. Lacy embellishments on the long-spun soprano lines for the Countess recall the Bellini phrases Maria Callas exulted in at the peak of her powers. Cherubino's mezzo-soprano pyrotechnics might have been made to order for Cecilia Bartoli.
For this modern-day premiere Mr. Muti is working with youngsters: the Orchestra Giovanile Luigi Cherubini in the pit and handpicked newcomers in the leading roles. Exercising his right of approval over all aspects of the production, he promises that the staging will be "very beautiful, very respectful."
In addition the Spanish director Emilio Sagi is aiming to give the show an authentically Spanish flavor. "The characters are very Spanish, as I can say, knowing very well the character of the people of my country," Mr. Sagi said recently from Ravenna, where the company was rehearsing. "They have so much life. There are so many imbroglios. But what surprises me most of all is the real Spanish air and the Spanish perfume Mercadante brought into the score with the boleros and fandangos and tiranas and cachuchas he knew from living in Spain."
Dramatically Mr. Sagi is intrigued by the supporting character of a playwright, Plagio — as in plagiarism? — who hangs around Figaro in hopes of pointers for a comedy he is writing. (The opera's subtitle is "Il Soggetto d'una Commedia," or "The Subject for a Comedy.")
"He's like someone in Pirandello," Mr. Sagi said. "Figaro is trying to invent a plot for him, but Figaro has no real imagination. It's real life that has the poetry and the creativity to make a comedy. It's life that is the real poet."
"I Due Figaro" ends in the spirit of the Beaumarchais the world has long known and loved, on a note of all-around forgiveness — however temporary — for one mad day's follies and betrayals, whether real or imaginary. From such a premise a composer of genius ought to be able to spin lasting magic. Was Mercadante that composer? If so, his time may be at hand.