Figaro, valet to Count Almaviva, is occupied with measuring out the room which the Count has given him for his impending marriage. His fiancée Susanna, who is Countess Almaviva’s lady’s-maid, opens his eyes to this apparently generous gesture’s not being merely in recognition of his good services. On the contrary, the Count, who has only just abolished the feudal “droit de Seigneur”, apparently has in mind to revive his traditional priority on Susanna’s wedding night. He is pestering her with innuendo in this direction, using the music-master Basilio as a go-between. Figaro is outraged. He now realizes that the Count’s proposal to take Figaro as his messenger and Susanna as “confidential delegate” on a trip to London is not without a lascivious ulterior motive. Figaro takes up the Count’s challenge.
Another threat to his wedding plans is Marcellina, the housekeeper. She is in possession of a promise of marriage which Figaro rashly signed as security on a loan of a thousand ducats. She intends to hold him to his written word and to make him marry her. The Count had once won the ward Rosina as his bride by tricking her jealous guardian Dr. Bartolo with Figaro’s help, and now Bartolo sees a chance of revenge on Figaro, and joins forces with Marcellina. An ensuing encounter between Susanna and Marcellina sees them as spirited rivals in repartee.
Cherubino, the Count’s page and exuberantly enthusiastic about the entire female sex, has been caught on one of his immature erotic forays with Barbarina, niece of Antonio the gardener. The Count is inclined to dismiss him. Cherubino begs Susanna to intercede for him with the Countess. He snatches one of the Countess’s ribbons from her, and offers in return a song he has written in honour of the Countess. As the Count approaches, Cherubino hides and becomes a witness to his master’s attempts to seduce his wife’s maid. Basilio is heard approaching and the Count also conceals himself to avoid an embarrassing situation; but on hearing a lubricious insinuation from Basilio concerning Cherubino and the Countess, he cannot contain himself behind the armchair. He angrily starts to demonstrate how he recently caught Cherubino red-handed hiding in Barbarina’s room; and his demonstration reveals Cherubino hiding once again here. All are shocked. At this point Figaro arrives with a group of servants to accelerate the preparations for his wedding, asking the Count formally to give Susanna her wedding finery as the traditional acknowledgment of her innocence. The Count improvises the excuse that before doing this he wants to organize a sumptuous celebration for the young couple, and he thereby neatly manages to delay the wedding a little more. His punishment for Cherubino is not dismissal, but a commission to a regiment stationed far away from the castle, which distresses Cherubino greatly. Figaro sarcastically congratulates Cherubino on the hard times which he can expect in his new posting, but he seems at the same time to mean the hard times the Count can expect from him.
The Countess sings of her sorrow over a husband who does not seem to love her any more. Figaro has meanwhile devised a plan which he explains to the Countess and Susanna. He has arranged that a love-letter falls into the Count’s hands, in which reference is made to a rendezvous which the Countess is supposed to have with a fictitious lover. This is to make him blind with jealousy; at the same time the Count himself is to receive another letter informing him that Susanna will be awaiting him in the garden that evening. Cherubino in disguise is to take Susanna’s place at the assignation. In the face of this embarrassing situation the Count will hardly be convincingly in a position to oppose Susanna’s marriage any further.
While the Countess and Susanna are busy getting Cherubino suitably disguised for his assignation, the Count unexpectedly approaches. The Countess hides Cherubino in her dressing-room. In a furious mood the Count strides into her boudoir and shows her the letter which Figaro has just arranged for him to receive. Hearing a noise, he demands that the dressing-room door be opened. The Countess explains that she sent Susanna into the dressing-room where he cannot intrude. In hiding, Susanna witnesses a violent altercation. The Count insists on going together with the Countess to fetch tools to break open the bolted dressing-room door, and so that the culprit cannot meanwhile escape, he himself locks the door of the boudoir as they leave. Susanna quickly helps Cherubino to escape by jumping out of the window, and bolts herself into the dressing-room instead. When the Count and the Countess return, the Countess begins to confess her guilt, but both are all the more amazed when it is not Cherubino but Susanna who emerges. The Count is acutely embarrassed by this and apologizes to the Countess. Then Figaro arrives, again with the intention of making progress with his wedding. The Count immediately wants to know what Figaro has to say to the letter he has in his hand. Unaware of who knows how much, Figaro pretends to be stupid. He tries to make believe that it was he who jumped out of the window, and feigns a sprained ankle as evidence. But then Antonio the gardener appears and tells of somebody he took for the page jumping out of the window and losing a piece of paper in the process. The piece of paper is Cherubino’s commission. Momentarily baffled, Figaro is prompted by the Countess to explain that he had it on him because the Count had forgotten to put the customary seal on the document. They are then interrupted by Marcellina, who, accompanied by Basilio and Bartolo, has come to demand that Figaro stands by his promise of marriage. The Count decides that this must be legally clarified, and thereby has another excuse to put off Figaro’s wedding.
While the Count is worrying about what to do next on this “crazy day” (subtitle of the original play by Beaumarchais, translator’s note), the Countess and Susanna are busy plotting again. The Countess suggests to her maid that she (Susanna) should make another assignation with the Count, and that she herself (the Countess) should turn up at the tryst disguised as Susanna. Susanna duly dates the Count, who thinks that he has achieved his lewd aim. But Susanna is too eager to let Figaro know that they have already won the day without legal aid; the Count overhears her saying so, realizes that he has been duped and plans revenge.
Meanwhile, Marcellina and Bartolo have the impression that they have won. Don Curzio, the local Justice, has come to the conclusion that Figaro must pay or marry. Looking for an escape route, Figaro pleads that he can marry only with the consent of his noble parents, but cannot say who they are. The story of the circumstances reveals that actually he is Raffaele, the long-lost son of Marcellina and Bartolo. The resulting touching scene of reunion makes Susanna think that he has acceded to Marcellina’s amatory wishes, but Figaro reassures her. Only the Count helplessly sees how everything seems to be going against him and that a double wedding is impending.
Cherubino has not gone yet. Barbarina is on his side and promises to help him disguise himself as one of the girls of the estate, so that they can go and present flowers to the Countess together.
Impatiently the Countess awaits news of how the Count reacted to Susanna’s letter. Meanwhile the Count hears from Antonio that Cherubino is still hanging around on the premises with Antonio’s niece Barbarina. His anger at this disobedience makes him overlook what his wife and Susanna could be up to. The Countess herself dictates to Susanna the letter which she is to write proposing his rendezvous with (purportedly) Susanna. When it is ready they close it with a pin which the Count is to send back as a sign that he will keep the tryst.
Led by Barbarina, the girls of the estate come to pay their respects to the Countess. Cherubino is discovered disguised as one of them. The Count is furious and makes to punish Cherubino severely, but Barbarina reminds him that the once promised to fulfil her every wish, and the wish she wants fulfilled is that she can marry Cherubino.
Figaro urges to begin the festivities at last. The Count is about to reopen the theme of the goings-on in his wife’s boudoir when the wedding procession arrives. The Count must now formally present the wedding finery to Susanna, and she grasps the opportunity to hand him surreptitiously the letter inviting him to their rendezvous. The Count assures the assembled company that he will make it a sumptuous evening for them; as soon as he and the Countess leave, all those present congratulate Susanna and Figaro on having stood up to the high-handed manner of the Count.
In the twilight park Barbarina in panic is looking for the needle which the Count had duly told her to bring to Susanna. Figaro has come into the garden with Marcellina, and in her anxiety Barbarina confides in Figaro, who is unaware of the plot hatched by Susanna and the Countess. Hastily giving Barbarina a needle which Marcellina lends him from her own dress, Figaro is overcome by rage and disappointment and he swears, in the name of all duped husbands, to be avenged on all treacherous women.
While Barbarina flits through the garden to bring a snack to Cherubino, Figaro instructs Basilio and Bartolo to prepare themselves to witness what will happen next.
The Countess and Susanna intend to exchange their dresses in the pavilion. Marcellina lets Susanna know that Figaro is concealed nearby. Susanna wants to punish him for his mistrust, and feigns her joyous expectance of the rendezvous with the Count. Cherubino comes by and, discovering the Countess whom he takes to be Susanna, grasps the opportunity to ask from her the favours he thinks she is about to grant to the Count. The Countess is doing her best to resist his advances when the Count finds them and delivers a hefty slap which misses his mark on Cherubino, but hits Figaro, who was just shifting his hiding-place.
The plan of the women works out well. The Count woos the Countess under the impression that she is Susanna, and the jealous and still unaware Figaro in his turn makes advances to the Countess to teach Susanna a lesson. But he immediately recognizes Susanna’s voice behind the clothes of the Countess and after a moment of teasing which brings him an outraged slap, lets Susanna know this. Reconciled, the lovers resume together the pursuit of the errant Count, whom Susanna has managed to elude. The Count sees Figaro apparently making love to the Countess, and calls out for weapons and for witnesses of his having caught his wife in flagranti. With everyone watching, the “Countess” (actually Susanna) and Figaro make to ask for forgiveness, but the Count remains adamant. Then the real Countess steps forward and reveals her identity. All are astonished and at a loss for words. After a moment’s hesitation the Count sees no alternative but abjectly to fall on his knees and to beg his wife’s pardon. The Countess graciously forgives him, and the “crazy day” of misunderstandings and mystification finds a pacified and harmonious end.