Houston — Although it feels like it is the most performed opera, Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, currently on stage at the Houston Grand Opera, only ranks ninth in the latest findings from Operabase, which reflects the 2013-14 season, the most recent available. Wolfgang’s The Magic Flute ranks higher, and his Don Giovanni and Cosí fan tutte are also in the top 20.
College productions abound and it is regularly on the seasons of professional companies. Dallas most recently offered a fine production in 2014 (review is here). Santa Fe mounted a boffo production when the stars properly aligned in 2013. (Review is here).
The reason for the opera’s longevity is that it is arguably the most perfect opera ever written: glorious music, real people characterizations and touching scenes paired with madcap humor.
The Houston production is the product of an alliance with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, which premiered it in 2012. The Houston production features a first-class cast: marvelous singing actors, one and all. Another bonus is that they all fit the parts physically so perfectly that they could be cast in a film version.
On the downside, this production, the brainchild of Michael Grandage, keeps the Spanish location in the countryside near Seville. But, he moves the action from the eve of the world-changing French Revolution to the forgettable era of Disco Duck, the wigged-out 1970’s.
More—lots more—about this later.
The three leading sopranos are all superb. The voices of the singers cast as Suzanna (Heidi Stober), the Countess (Ailyn Pérez) and the pants role of Cherubino (Lauren Snouffer) are all top-level professionals. Heard individually, their voices are all different, but in the ensembles, the three don’t offer enough contrast to be readily identifiable. It is a Goldilocks situation. We are used to a lighter soprano as Suzanna and a more mezzo-like mezzo for Cherubino, while Pérez is “just right.”
However, this admittedly somewhat elitist quibble is unimportant to most everyone in attendance. If you know the opera, even slightly, this lack of an audible vocal hierarchy is hardly noticeable. Those who know the opera don’t require a noticeable vocal difference to tell who is who.
Pérez, who will star in the title role of the Dallas Opera’s upcoming Manon, has the gift of a lustrous voice, with complexity and depth. But a glorious sound is only a good as a singer’s vocal technique and she has complete mastery over her instrument. Her voice is perfectly placed and even from top to bottom. However, once you get over your initial astonishment at the richness of her sound, the overall impression of her singing is her musicality and complete habitation of the character she is portraying. Her Countess is a woman in love, trying to overlook her husband’s philandering and trying to keep her tattered marriage and her dignity intact. Her dignified but heartbreaking admission of her helplessness in the aria “Dove sono” is the highlight of the evening.
Heidi Stober’s Suzanna is a strong woman who is in charge, barely at times, of the crazy and ever-changing situations that swirl around her. Her beautiful and well-produced voice may not be quite light enough for an ideal Suzanna, nor is she the usual perky soubrette, but competence and adaptability are of more value than the usual cutesy woman in her wacky situation. Stober’s approach to the character puts her Suzanna in the center of the action as opposed to just always present.
Lauren Snouffer is terrific in the pants role of the terminally horny page, Cherubino, suffering from testosterone poisoning. Unlike some other portrayals, her Cherubino is more on the child side of adolescence than on the edge of manhood; a refreshing characterization.
Catherine Cook, a strong mezzo, is very funny as the dowdy Marcellina. Her transformation from a giggly bride-to-be to a nurturing mother is hysterically instantaneous. (I won’t say any more in case some reader doesn’t know the plot.)
Barbarina is usually a minor character and a starter role for a future Suzanna. But that was before the role met Pureum Jo. This Barbarina is a wired, wily, oversexed and definitely ADHD teenager. Thanks to the director who let her loose, or had no choice, she steals every scene she is in.
Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins is excellent as the Count. His portrayal was more nuanced that the usual indignant and self-aggrandized minor royalty who is having a bad day. His portrayal is less of a stereotype. His Count is bewildered and bemused by events he thought he controlled; a bungling lothario and incompetent schemer who is surprised when outfoxed at every turn. Vocally, he has a bright and flexible baritone voice that easily met the well-known challenges of the role. Reportedly, he missed opening night due to illness but there was no evidence of that remaining at the Jan. 30 performance.
Also reportedly, he didn’t have an understudy. This is an astonishing piece of news for a major opera company. Apparently, they came up with a Rube Goldberg solution with an apprentice singing the role from a podium on the side of the stage while the director, Ian Rutherford (substituting for an indisposed Joshua Hopkins), walked the role on stage. Jeesh!
The Chinese basso-buffo, Peixin Chen, is a more realistic Bartolo than the usual buffoonish portrayal. His Bartolo is caught in one silly situation reversal after another, but knows how to adapt to the changed landscape. Vocally, he aced the both the braggadocio and the barrage of tongue twisting words in the aria “La vendetta.”
Keith Jameson is fantastically funny as the nosy music master Don Basilio. Like all of the others in this cast, he is not the usual foppy stereotype. But his bright red wig adds a touch of ridiculousness to his hopeless attempt at stature.
All of the secondary characters are also excellent and make strong impressions in their minimal stage time. Federico de Michelis is funny as the inebriated gardener, Antonio. Chris Bozeka, as Don Curzio, ignores the scripted stutter, and Laurie Lester and Cecilia Duarte are cute as the slightly confused bridesmaids.
This brings us to the title character. Once again, the director eschews stereotypes. The Figaro of the vocally impressive Czech bass-baritone Adam Platchetka is not the usual hyperactive and boyish nice guy. Here, he is more of a lovable lug of a man. He is clever but not the bright bulb that is his future wife, Suzanna. This characterization works perfectly in this production in which he finds everything around him is, as the British director would say, at sixes and sevens. It also makes his last act diatribe against scheming women, “Aprite un po’ quegli,” an outburst of frustration rather than a long held belief.
Harry Bricket, conducting without a baton but with minimal motions, is a wonder of clarity and musical interpretative efficiency. He is so in-control that the singers have the luxury of some freedom in their interpretations, even adding some ornamentation here and there.
British designer Christopher Oram’s inside-outside turntable set is a marvel and keeps up with the opera’s constantly changing locations.
Now about the questionable move to the groovy 1970’s:
When producing a familiar opera these days it is common knowledge, and a cause of some audience trepidation, that everything, except the music, can be changed. Even the music can be flexible. Opera Parallèle, founded by The Dallas Opera’s Principal Guest Conductor, Nicole Paiement, commissioned a chamber version of John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby and presented the West Coast premiere of John Rea’s re-orchestration of Berg’s Wozzeck. In 1983, the unconventional Peter Brooks took a red pencil to Bizet’s Carmen and presented a stripped-down film noir version. He reduced it to only the most critical scenes, re-orchestrated the score for just a few players, and hewed closer to the 1845 novella by Prosper Mérimée.
The big questions in considering such a temporal transplantation are (drum roll): What is the payoff? What does it add to opera-goers’ understanding of the work? Does it illuminate the opera in some way?
The answer to all for these questions concerning the Grandage production is a resounding “No!”
Rather than illuminating it is disorienting. It blunts the controversial aspects of both the scandalous play on which it is based, by Pierre Beaumarchais, and Lorenzo da Ponte’s clever and fast-paced libretto, which was whitewashed to please the censors at the time but still maintained the premise.
The impending French Revolution hangs over the madcap machinations of the court of the Count of Almaviva. This impending social uproar is the basis and intent of both the play and the opera. It is the servants who are in charge and they play with the inbreed royalty like puppets. Figaro states that if the count wants to dance, then he will play the tune. Removing this underpinning, the opera takes on the gravity of a Carol Burnett skit.
But, so what.
This production is completely enjoyable on all other levels, if you accept it on its own premise. Carol Burnett skits are incredibly funny, after all. It cleverly acted, eliciting much laughter from the audience. And, when you get right down to it, opera is about singing and this Figaro is magnificently sung.
Besides, it is fun to revisit the gaudy 70’s clothing we thought was so very cool and chic. What were we thinking?