Many experts and nonexperts alike consider Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro one of the greatest operas ever written. The great fear in attending a production of it is that the director or conductor won’t leave it alone to speak for itself in all its perfection. Much has been said and written about this 2008 Santa Fe Opera production, by Jonathan Kent (now overseen by Bruce Donnell), with sets and costumes by Paul Brown. Expectations were high.
It was a disappointment to see an empty stage covered with obviously artificial flowers stuck by their metal rods in a peg board-like floor. It looked like the set came from an arts and craft store. Even stranger, at the end of the overture, liveried stage hands came out and picked the flowers from the front half and carried them off stage. Oh no…a concept production.
Fortunately, this little preshow was the end of such goings on. A clever roll-on set extended to create the different scene changes. A crystal conservatory—summer garden if you wil—kept the color scheme of grays and muted blues going while offering a dramatic change.
This entire production will remain in memory as one of the best Figaros in a life which has seen many of them, in houses large and small, with casts strong and weak and approaches silly and serious. There is hardly a weak spot to be seen anywhere. There are no marquee names here, as have bedecked the other two operas already reviewed and will do so again with Oscar. Come to think of it, a big name star might have gotten in the way.
Everyone in the cast looks exactly as their character should look. Further, all have a clear concept of character and such strong stage skills that you are never aware of anyone “acting.” Vocally, each is also tailored to the roles and there are enough differences in the timbres of the voices that it’s easy to identify who is singing, even in the complex ensembles. Mozart gives his characters some of his most beautiful and touching creations and the consistent vocal control and musicianship of this cast brings them all to life without a hint of operatic overload.
Special mention must also be made of the chatty nature of the recitatives. Too frequently, these are sung as mini-arias instead of the pitched speech Mozart intended. At one point or another, each of the singers uses a modified or comic vocal quality to give the conversational flow just the right touch of sarcasm or other emotions to be found under the text. I was unable to find a credit for whomever accompanied them on the oddly amplified instrument that sounded vaguely like a harpsichord, but they (continuo with cello) did an excellent job—supportive but never intrusive.
Except for a rushed overture, which always seems to happen these days in Figaro productions, a batonless John Nelson leads an erudite and spirited reading of the score. He keeps it moving, sometimes leaving his singers gasping and occasionally slightly behind, but his tempi are consistent in Mozart’s huge arching structure. (A tempo in one place dictates it in another.)
Nelson’s best work is with the winds. Mozart gives all of the countermelodies to this section of the orchestra and Nelson lets them soar and then fade back into the texture. He doesn’t need to conduct the recitatives that are just the keyboard and cello, but he mostly does. They are certainly able to play unaided and it makes him appear fussy and unwilling to let even a single note sound without his imprint.
As for the cast, let’s start with high praise for Susanna Mentzer as Marcellina. She was one of the best Cherubinos in memory and brava to her for bringing her undimmed acting ability to raise this usually more secondary role to prime status. Her Marcellina is neither old nor young, but an attractive woman with a childlike exuberance. At one point, she bounces up and down with eagerness. This is the only time in memory when the fact that Marcellina’s aria is cut is a huge disappointment.
Soprano Susanna Phillip gets the award for the most magnificently sung aria of the evening for her version of Dove sono i bei momenti. Controlled and sustained, yet heartbreaking from the start, she saves the best for last. When the opening section returns, her incredibly soft and focused sound, with some perfectly placed ornamental notes, keeps the audience enthralled. Her Countess is a woman still ardently in love with her husband but not immune to the charms of the young page, Cherubino.
Speaking of Cherubino, Emily Fons makes her official company debut as the irrepressible page, suffering from testosterone poisoning and restless leg syndrome. She is as convincing in her portrayal of a teenaged male as you will ever see. He (she deserves the pronoun) sings two arias with a clear mezzo that still has a few years to go until it reaches its full potential. Best, there is just the right touch of shyness when actually given the attention he craves. The first act aria, Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio, starts out fine but the ritard at the end is overdone to the point of glacial movement. The other aria, Voi che sapete, moves much more naturally.
As the Count, Daniel Okulitch, the Canadian bass-baritone, stands a good foot taller than all of the other members of the cast. This gives his character a menacing presence just by statue alone. His constant state of confusion and bluster is completely believable. His rendition of Hai già vinta la causa is a hysterical study of impotent frustration that he, the man in change, is losing control to events in his own household.
As Figaro, Zachary Nelson displays an easy baritone with focus and resonance. He plays the character as a nice guy who is everyone’s best friend. There is little of the resentful servant, seething with revolt, that we often see. Sure, he is unhappy with the Count’s clumsy advances towards Suzanna and a willing conspirator in the plans to embarrass him. But he knows his place.
He is still the clever guy who enlists the local villagers to intrude on the Count at all the wrong moments and who laughs at the Count’s discomfort. But Nelson’s Figaro knows how far he can go and is content with what little triumphs he can win. The news of his suddenly discovered parentage aside, he realizes that the next morning, after all the shenanigans are over, he has to go back to work as the Count’s valet.
Soprano Lisette Oropesa creates a very young, but wise beyond her years, Suzanna. She resists the usual “smartest girl in the class” smugness that many purveyors of the role affect. We see her evaluate, and then approve, the ideas as the conspirators hatch the harebrained scheme to give the Count his comeuppance. Her aria Deh Vieni, Non Tardar is exquisite.
Dale Travis is a pompous blowhard of a Bartolo, but his voice is so swallowed that its attractive quality doesn’t project. As Barbarina, Rachel Hall displays a clear soprano with deeper overtones that foretells a fine career. She plays her as more innocent, maybe clueless, than as a scheming coquette. Keith Jameson is very funny as Don Basilio, without overplaying him (as so often happens). Adam Lau is delightful as the gardener Antonio, who may or may not have been as drunk as those caught red-handed make him out to be. It’s a nice twist.
Figaro requires that rare combination of a cast of singers that can form an ensemble without sacrificing their vocal individuality. This cannot be done by asking one singer to hold back or another to sing out. This must be done in the casting decisions, sometimes done years ahead of the production. The Suzanna you heard a year ago might not be the same singer when she shows up. So, there is an art, but also bit of luck, that is needed to put together a Figaro such as this one.
What is so exciting is that everything comes together perfectly and for this one moment in time. All of these singers will be different later and this production will be induplicable—even if they all returned. Consider yourself fortunate if you’re able to experience it.
◊ Other reviews from the 2013 Santa Fe Opera season:
- Rossini's La donna del lago, featuring Joyce DiDonato
- Offenbach's La grand-duchesse de Gérolstein, starring Susan Graham
- The world premiere of Theodore Morrison's Oscar, starring countertenor David Daniels
- Verdi's La traviata