New York, N.Y. — The production of Mozart’s eternally charming and musically astounding opera, The Marriage of Figaro, currently running at the Metropolitan Opera, might just as well be called “The Antics of Cherubino.” Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard turns in one of the best, and most believable, performances as the gangly and testosterone-poisoned teenager in memory. Leonard commands complete attention every moment she is on stage.
Before moving on to commentary about the excellent cast, two comments are best addressed immediately.
The production, by Richard Eyre, dates from 2014 and has been the subject of some controversy ever since, with most of it about Rob Howell’s overwhelming set. Although prepared by such commentary, it was still a surprise to see exactly how huge the rotating towers, made of elaborate iron filigree, actually were. It made the singers look tiny by comparison. However, as the opera progressed, it became easier to concentrate on the space occupied by the singers and ignore the towering environment.
The other reservation is harder to ignore.
The events of Mozart’s opera are tied to the unrest in the era before the French Revolution and do not take time travel unharmed. The concept of the servants making fools out of the royalty was one of the main points of the original (1778) plays by Pierre Beaumarchais as well as the cause of them being censored by Louis XVI himself.
Moving the action to Seville circa 1930 has also been mentioned in the press, but without much comment. However, it is equally as strange as the oversized set. Counts in the 1930’s no longer had private regiments, such as the one to which Cherubino is banished. Instead, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) was in progress (hinted at in Cherubino’s uniform).
The droit du seigneur (the right of the master to enjoy the charms of every new bride under his control) was long gone by the 1930’s and it is the dramatic crux on which the opera revolves. (The count has renounced it but wants to see it revived, at least unofficially, now that his wife’s chambermaid, Susanna, is getting married.)
This is hardly the first time Figaro has been moved forward in time. In Houston, the action was moved to the even more improbable 1970’s. (My review is here.)
The advantage of the 1930’s over the wigged out 1970’s is that it allowed Howell, who also designed the costumes, the opportunity to dress the characters in some terrific duds: elegant gowns, natty suits and elegant servant’s livery. Setting the opera in its native time period would mean powered wigs, dresses like tables, satin, velvet and ruffles.
One other odd bit of staging, considering the political environment in Spain at the time, was having the newly wedded couples under a rug held aloft, like an improvised Chuppah: a canopy most commonly used in Jewish wedding ceremonies.
But, no one goes home humming the set or the costumes. Opera is about singing and the cast, as heard on Monday evening, is uniformly strong: world-class voices, who easily resemble the characters they portray, and displaying strong acting abilities. Better yet, the entire cast delivered the recitatives in a natural conversational manner, like they would be spoken, rather than as dry and unimaginative arias.
At the top of the list is Luca Pisaroni as the Count. He has a striking baritone voice with some bass overtones. He is the master of the double take and even knows exactly how long he can get away with milking it when the audience responds.
By comparison, Mikhail Petrenko’s Figaro was more of a nice guy that the usual rascally portrayal. Anita Hartig, as his intended Susanna, was also fairly low key as opposed to the more common portrayal as a bouncy girl in the bloom of youth.
Rachel Willis-Sørensen was appropriately regal as the Countess, but vocally stiff except n her extended solo parts and two lovingly sung arias.
Susanne Mentzer was a treasure as Marcellina. The mezzo-soprano has graced the stage at the Met since 1989 and sang a terrific Cherubino herself in times past. Marchelina is a role often given to miscellaneous mezzos and, as such, never rises to the level of a credible former love interest of Bartolo. Here, Mentzer is still after him from the get-go.
One of the best aspects of the casting was the noticeable difference between the timbres of the women’s voices. Too often, it is hard to tell one from the other. Here, all four (if you count Cherubino) were so very different that in both the ensembles and the rapid-fire scenes were completely distinguishable.
Maurizio Muraro was a pompous but deep-down-soft-hearted Bartolo. He managed to spit out the patter section of his big aria, even at the licitly spilt tempo set by the conductor. He also responded to Marchelina’s obvious flirtations with long-suffering and practiced indifference. Robert McPherson was funny as the nosey Basillio, without turning him into a foppish caricature. Ashley Emerson was on the insipid side of Barbarina, but she has a lovely voice that shows much promise. Scott Scully’s Don Curzio didn’t use the written, but unPC stutter, but stumbled on some words instead. Paul Corona was more matter-of-fact than the usual inebriated Antonio.
Finally, this brings us to Fabio Luisi, the Met’s principal conductor and heir apparent to the Levinian Throne. The best that can be said is that he turned in a fine performance. But more is expected in America’s premiere opera house. Perhaps no one could possibly come up to such stratospheric high expectations as the opera word has for Levine’s replacement.
(When it comes to opinions on conductors, matters such tempi and ensemble, no one is correct and no one is wrong.)
However, a noticeably rushed overture left the winds scrambling on an early descending scale passage. The first time it was ragged but they managed to pull off the passage better when it was repeated shortly thereafter (and they knew about the fast tempo). This tendency to rush continued and produced some ragged playing that marred more than one aria and ensemble in the first act.
Further, and this is an esoteric point, in the recitativo accompagnati, so critical in Mozart, Luisi was not precisely on top of the text (matching the chords with the singer’s delivery of the text). Also, the brief “buttons” of music in these recitatives should be a transition from one thought to next one. More often that not, they were just some lovely notes in-between the singer’s lines.
Tempi continued to be slightly erratic throughout the evening. Some were a bit too slow to enable the listener to follow and others were fast leaving some singers breathless. The exquisite moment at the end of the opera, when the humbled Count says “Contessa, perdono!” was taken so slowly that it was difficult to connect up the notes into a melody. (This is not a tune you want miss.)
All these quibbles aside, Figaro is one of those operas that always delights and such was the case here. Many of the directorial touches propelled this comedy into a laugh-out-loud pleasure. Cherubino’s Mt. Everest-sized sex drive, awkward strutting around in heels and clumsy attempts to put the make on whomever was within reach was terrific. The count’s constant befuddlement and double takes were priceless. Susanna, Figaro and the Countess were amateur conspirators and Marchelina’s conversation to mother from fiancée was hysterical.
A comic opera that is funny…imagine that!