by David Salazar
Just one month into the 2012-13 season, the Met Opera has already succeeded in a multitude of successful revisits to older productions. Mozart's masterpiece Le Nozze di Figaro becomes the latest first-rate revival with an energetic cast, a vibrant production, winning direction, and insightful conducting.
Jonathon Miller's current production debuted in 1998, but it still resonates. Peter Davison's opulent but restrained sets maintain a beige dominated palette and combined with James Acheson's diverse costumes really accent the characters and the dramatic situations. The Countess' first costume has a peach and pink complexion that matches her beige walls and adds a subtle feel that she has essentially become a piece of furniture in this castle. The baby and her older daughter are also wearing similar palette attire to emphasize this similar point. However, as the Countess' role develops throughout, the attire starts to oppose the environment and in a transcendent moment at the climax of the work she appears in a sparkling white dress that shines among the darkness of the night and really accentuate her above all other characters.
The first Act set showcases Susanna and Figaro's multi-level room; the second act shows the countess' large room with a bed on the back wall; the third act is a large hall that rotates to the outdoor that is Act 4. Despite being elaborate sets, they are rather bare and not cluttered with too much furniture or other visual distractions. This helps focus the audience's attention on the action, which is well-executed by stage director Gregory Keller. Keller stays literal to the text with a few exceptions. Figaro and Susanna have three chances to get married in each of the first three acts. Each time, the Count finds a way to interrupt it until they get their wish in the third. Keller places special emphasis on each occasion and after the Count decides against the first celebration the chorus members chide the count. As Susanna and the Countess turn Cherubino into a girl, they turn his back to the audience as they smear on the makeup. The choice to show the audience his back only builds the curiosity and anticipation and when he is finally revealed, the payoff is immense. Later in the same act the Count and Countess seem ready to reconcile after his jealous behavior and she leads him over to her bed. They prepare to pull the curtain over them and Figaro storms into the room to interrupt the moment. As the opera draws to a close and the Countess forgives her husband Mozart provides three measures of string gestures that bridge the E minor section to the D major with which the work ends. During these moments, Keller has the two newly-wed couples kissing passionately, but in the center of the stage are the Count and Countess consuming their apparent reconciliation. They stare at one another preparing to unite in a passionate kiss, but right before they can, the joyous final chorus starts up and Keller never gives the audience the satisfaction of knowing if this truly ends happily ever after. This nuanced direction and Kellers choice to never stop the action on stage added layers to Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte's complex work.
Maija Kovalevska as Countess Almaviva and Christine Schäfer as Cherubino Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera Taken at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on October 22, 2012.
Ildar Abdrazakov made his role debut as Figaro on Friday. His Figaro immediately came off as noble and gentle, though surprisingly innocent and fragile. I have always felt that the opera is about the women's ability to outmaneuver the men and Abdrazakov's performance supported this interpretation. He jumped into Marcellina's arms like a small child upon discovering she was his mother. In Act 4 when he found out about Susanna's supposed infidelity he fell to his mother's knees with a desperate wail. During the Act 2 scene in which he tries to hold up his lie to the Count (even though the latter has already discovered the truth) he looked completely oblivious as he tried to layer on new lies to substantiate his old one. Abdrazakov's ringing and robust voice added complexity to the portrayal as the outward appearance of his singing ultimately made it a cover for was really a very sensitive being. His comic timing during his aria "Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso" was impeccable as he marched about and toyed with the confused Cherubino. Same went for his opening aria "Si Vuol ballare signor contino" during which he danced with a pair of boots.
He also had tender and passionate moments with his Susanna played by Mojca Erdmann. The 37-year old soprano took over the show at many points as Susanna essentially dominates the plot. She has a sweet soprano, but it packs quite a punch as she tended to project well over the rest of her cast members during the larger ensembles. Unlike Abdrazakov's naive Figaro, Erdmann's Susanna was feisty and hard-edged; there was certainly no innocence here. She was openly suggestive with Figaro in the opera's first scene but then engaged in some suspicious flirtation with Cherubino a few scenes later. She had no qualms with knocking into Marcellina in their Act 1 Duet or slapping Figaro after finding him in Marcellina's arms in Act 3. The final scene between Abdrazakov and Erdmann was playful and quite entertaining as the two intensified the sexuality to anger the Count who wrongly believes her to be his wife. She sang her final aria "Giunse alfin il momento" with consummate sensuality; every phrase very tactile and delicately placed as she reclined on the staircase ready to be stolen away by the night. Figaro, who was hidden and angry at her seeming infidelity, seemed to forget his jealousy for a moment as he started toward her passionately. This was a bonafide star turn by Erdmann who is surely on the rise.
Maija Kovalevska has been limited to singing two roles at the Met Opera for a long time: Micaela in Carmen and Mimi in La Boheme. Hopefully her performance in Nozze will be enough evidence to demonstrate that she is ready for more repertoire at the house. Her voice is truly beautiful: delicate, potent, and technically secure. She showcased a fluid legato during her opening Aria "Porgi Amor Qualche ristoro" in which she mourns the lack of love in her life. More impressive was intensity of her second aria "Dove Sono." The tempo at the start of the aria seemed to be a bit rushed, but Kovalevska eased into it and gave the moment a mix of torment and tenderness that made her Countess the most empathetic character. But her performance was not of a completely unhappy woman as Kovalevska's Countess was particularly striking because she made her so active in the proceedings. Despite her emotional emptiness she was willing to fight for her husband's love, and she also had a lot of fun doing so. As Susanna and the Countess dress Cherubino into a girl, Kovalevska added a few dance steps which gave off a girlish enthusiasm. Kovalevska and Erdmann spent a lot of time like two gossipers poking fun at the other characters during the big ensembles and it was evident that the two had a great deal of fun on stage together. Kovalevska's defining moment however was at the end of the opera as she marched on stage in her shining dress demanding that her husband forgive Figaro and Susanna. After the Count asks forgiveness, Kovalevska took an extensive pause that added suspense. As she finally forgives the count, the voice was at its finest: smooth, caressing, and yet yearning with melancholy. It is a brief line of just six and a half measures, but it was a transcendent moment that emphasized the unparalleled beauty of Mozart's music.
Gerald Finley as Count Almaviva in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro." Photo: Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera Taken at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City on October 22, 2012.
Gerald Finely is a well-known Count and his performance only supported that notion. Despite being the work's "villain," his voice was heroic and his portrayal really gave the character nobility. Finley's stage presence is second to none and as he stepped on stage to court Susanna in Act 1, he had the swagger of a powerful ruler in his prime. He initially sang with gentle phrasing during the recitative but when he found out about Cherubino's interest for his wife during the trio, the voice took on a harsher quality to emphasize the anger. As the opera progressed, Finley gave the Count a growing arc of frustration that came to the fore in his Act 3 aria when he overhears Susanna and Figaro exchange a few suspicious comments. His wide eyed expressions suggested neurosis that drew tremendous laughter from the audience. The Count could easily be the laughing stock of the work and as the women constantly trick him and play around with, it can be hard to look upon him as a formidable adversary. Finley's rendition of the Act 3 aria was sung with such authority that it made sure that his Count garnered the audience's respect. But the romantic count was never absent in this complex portrayal. The most apparent moment was the opera's finale during which the count has the lines "O Contessa Perdono"that last for just four measures of music. The confident voice that was showcased throughout was replaced here with a soaring almost disembodied pianissimo that emanated a great deal of warmth throughout the hall; Finley's extension of the ending of the phrase on the word "perdono" (it is marked in the score as a pair of fermatas) was exceptionally rewarding.
Christine Schafer is well known for her internationally successful portrayal of the sexually aroused Cherubino. Schafer's Cherubino was timid and really accented the fact the he was an adolescent testing out his hormones for the first time. The singing was gentle and delicate though not without subtle moments of fire taking over. As he sung his first aria, the intensity of Schafer's singing rose as Cherubino followed the suggestive Susanna around the room. During the second aria "Voi che sapete che cosa e amor," Schafer's Cherbino sang the repeat of the main melody pianissimo and slowly built it as he walked toward the Countess ready to make his move. As the aria concluded, Cherubino could not contain himself any longer and moved in to kiss his beloved, but was stopped. The suspense Schafer and Kovalevska created in the moment made the lack of a payoff for Cherubino heart breaking to watch.
The remainder of the cast that included Maurizio Muraro (Doctor Bartolo), Margaret Lattimore (Marcellina), John Graham-Hall (debuting at the Met as Don Basillio), Tony Stevensen (Don Curzio), and Ashley Emerson (Barbarina) all gave committed performances in the complementary roles.
David Robertson had a fantastic evening at the podium. His tempi tended toward swiftness and the orchestra remained light and propulsive throughout the evening without ever being intrusive to the singers. Robertson kept the momentum of the drama moving by having the recitative continue right after certain arias or trios ended and only left spaces for applause after a few arias. The decision to cut Marcellina and Basilio's Act 4 arias was also a brilliant choice as it avoided the inevitable slowdown of the action that would have occurred had these arias not been omitted.
Nozze started at 7:30 and ended at 11 PM with just one 30 minute intermission. However, the combination of a committed cast, focused direction, and well-paced conducting made the evening fly by without ever threatening to slowdown. This revival of the Mozart masterpiece was not only refreshing, but utterly engaging and entertaining.