by Sharon Cumberland -
SGN A&E Writer
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
MARION OLIVER MCCAW HALL
January 16 (first cast)
(also 1/20, 1/23, 1/27 & 1/30)
Any production of The Marriage of Figaro would be a gratifying burst of music and light in a rainy January, but Seattle Opera's new version of Mozart's marvelous opera is especially welcome. In addition to showing off some of the composer's most beloved music, this witty production and marvelous cast give comic consideration to a serious subject: droit du seigneur, the ancient right of an aristocrat to deflower vassal brides on their wedding night.
Based on a rabble-rousing farce by the French playwright Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro centers on the determination of Figaro, valet to Count Almaviva, to foil the Count's plan to seduce, Susana, Figaro's bride, before their wedding. Though droit du seigneur is out of fashion and the Count has publicly renounced his right to it, he has moved the newlyweds to a room in the palace that makes Susana vulnerable to rape during Figaro's absence. As the Count's nasty purpose is frustrated by plots and counter-plots to thwart or support his ardor, the lowly Figaro's triumph in humiliating his aristocratic master was so revolutionary in its own time that Napoleon called the play 'Revolution in action.'
Mozart's librettist, Lorenzo DaPonte, lightens Beaumarchais' plot into a frothy comedy of marital infidelity and sexual passion, especially through the complications of Cherubino, a handsome young fellow who personifies the unmanageable aspects of love. Yet Mozart's composition articulates the emotional subtext of sorrow, anger, and anxiety without losing the musical excitement we all know so well. (If you don't think you know this music, just listen to the overture - one of the most enticing pieces of music ever written and used in countless films, commercials, and concert settings). When Cherubino sings his plaintive aria 'Voi che sapete' ('You who know what love is&') or when the Contessa sings 'Dove sono' ('Where are the beautiful times we once knew&') we feel their poignant longing for the peace and stability in love rather than the chaos of passion that drives the action. When Figaro sings 'Se vuol ballare, signor contino&' ('If you want to dance, little Count&) his anger at being betrayed by the master he has faithfully served fairly boils over.
General Director Aiden Lang makes his stage direction debut in Seattle by remounting his original New Zealand Opera version with many of the same artists, including two Seattle Opera debutantes in major roles: the mononomial baritone Shenyang, from China, as Figaro, and the Slovenian soprano Bernarda Bobro as the Contessa. I greatly appreciated the heartfelt, almost serious enactment of their roles, which made the comedy swirling around them that much more effective. And with their secure and expressive voices both were energetic companions for the fabulous Nuccia Focile, as Susana. We last saw Focile as Violetta in La Traviata, and I will never forget her performance as Nedda in Seattle Opera's uniquely extended version of Pagliacci. What a pleasure to see her again in a role that requires clever acting as well as perfectly phrased, flawless singing! And Director Lang continues Seattle Opera's tradition of providing a supporting cast that is as solid as its stars - an approach not always shared by the major opera companies - led this time by audience favorite Arthur Woodley, playing Dr. Bartolo.
The Seattle Opera Orchestra was a major star of the evening, conducted by Gary Thor Weedow, who has guided this superb ensemble through Handel's Giulio Cesare and the more recent Semele, as well as Mozart's darkest opera, Don Giovanni. His choice of the fortepiano for the recitatives instead of a harpsichord (or - horrors! - a modern piano) was an elegant touch. Its rounder, less tinkling sound is still soft enough to need amplification, but gives the production the more contemporary feel that characterizes this production. I had a chat with fortepianist Phillip Kelsey at the intermission and learned that Mozart preferred this instrument, which was displacing the harpsichord in the late 18th century, and that the original production of Nozze di Figaro in 1786 used the fortepiano. Another lovely dimension to the musical evening that I particularly enjoyed was the way several principal singers used ornamentation in the da capo arias - a baroque practice that is being revived by conductors like Weedow, who encourage vocalists to offer their own extra notes and cadenzas at the end of arias.
Director Lang has also brought the original sets and costumes designed by New Zealanders Robin Rawstorne and Elizabeth Whiting to Seattle, giving a very original look to the 18th century universe. Whiting's costumes are built on 18th century patterns from contemporary materials, while Rawstorne's sets are richly abstract with ocular windows in soaring walls. As the audience enters they are confronted with a huge wooden surface - beautifully polished panels - that slide like shoji screens throughout the evening, changing the configuration of the stage with every scene, sometimes in the midst of a scene. It not only creates seamless movement throughout the fast-moving plot, but also, as the program notes point out, creates interior spaces that express the claustrophobic situation of the servants versus the capacious rooms of the aristocrats.
While the elegant simplicity of these sets are meant to diminish distraction from the rapid-fire plot, my only complaint about this production is that some of Director Lang's choices complicate the action in unnecessary ways. Some of his interpolations seemed to me to be merely pointless (Why is there a mannequin under a veil in Act I? Why does the Count need to kick a serving woman in Act II?) but there was one directorial choice that undermined a central theme of the opera. In DaPonte's libretto the Count's infidelity is counterbalanced by the love and fidelity of his wife, who works with Susana and Figaro to expose her husband with the ultimate (successful) goal of reconciliation. In every production of The Marriage of Figaro I've seen (and I've seen a lot) the Contessa is true to the wish expressed in her first, heart-rending aria, 'Porgi, amor' (Grant, Love...'), in which she begs the god of love to give her back her treasured husband, the Count, or let her die.
But in this production the Contessa engages in a flirtation with Cherubino that has them rolling around on the bed together, suggesting that she, too, is capable of infidelity. This is sheer invention on the part of the director, possibly to demonstrate Cherubino's unbridled impulses. What is sacrificed, however, is the moral center of the plot. Without the Contessa's faithfulness to her husband we suddenly find ourselves in the middle of Der Rosenkavelier, with the Contessa playing the Marschellin and Cherubino playing Octavian, her pretty-boy lover. That's another interesting story, but not this story. Confusing the two reduces the meaning of The Marriage of Figaro to catch-as-catch-can situational ethics. That may appeal to a 21st century audience - if they even notice - but it goes against Mozart's subtextual optimism and faith in the triumph of love.
But don't let that keep you from seeing this otherwise delightful production of one of the great operas in the repertoire. General Director Lang is off to a brilliant start, even if Stage Director Lang is fooling around with the story. It's a wonderful combination of immortal music, class-conscious politics, hilarious farce, and thrilling singing.
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