by Alan Kozinn
THE NEW YORK TIMES
If the Metropolitan Opera continues on its current path, Jonathan Miller’s 1998 production of Mozart’s “Nozze di Figaro” will be succeeded either by a version couched in the glitzy conventions of Broadway or by a European high-concept staging in which the action is presented as, perhaps, a hallucination of an institutionalized Don Basilio.
Mr. Miller has been known to tinker with settings and relationships himself, but his “Figaro” is fairly straightforward: he keeps the work in the 18th century and lets the score tell this subversive tale Mozart’s way. But the staging continues to evolve, incrementally. Gregory Keller is now overseeing the stage direction, and when the opera returned to the house on Tuesday evening, some scenes had been rethought (Figaro now sings “Se vuol ballare” while spit-polishing the Count’s boots; Cherubino no longer disrobes behind the Countess’s screen), and the balance of subtlety and slapstick has moved slightly toward comic broadness.
The cast undoubtedly has something to do with that. Most notably Danielle de Niese, a natural comic actress, in her first Met Susanna, brought an ebullient playfulness to the role, particularly in her scenes with Cherubino and the Countess. But she was not just a comedian; in her scenes with the Count she conveys the sense that beneath her flirtatiousness Susanna knows she is playing with fire and is constantly recalculating her moves.
Ms. de Niese’s lyric soprano has a good, solid top supported by a firm middle range that yields a full, if not especially loud, rounded tone that can be momentarily disconcerting if you expect the bright soubrette voice that has become the norm in this role. But Ms. de Niese recast Susanna in her own image and was at her most persuasive in her passionate account of “Deh! Vieni, non tardar,” in the final act.
John Relyea’s Figaro seemed less sharply defined than it has in past seasons. Perhaps the chemistry between him and Ms. de Niese is not as volatile as it might be. But his spotlight moments, from the comic “Non più andrai" to the emotionally intense “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi,” remain thoughtfully characterized. And Bo Skovhus’s firm-voiced rendering of the Count is notable for its flexibility. Less imperious than many, this Count moves inexorably from smooth lothario to frustrated bumbler.
Emma Bell, making her house debut as the Countess, began puzzlingly. Her “Porgi amor” benefited from her warm tone and shapely phrasing yet failed to convey the Countess’s desolation. But she quickly warmed to the role, and when Mozart offered a second chance, in “Dove sono,” her gracefully shaped dynamics, including a heavenly pianissimo in the repeated section, yielded one of the evening’s most moving moments. (Another was her beautifully paced appearance in the closing scene.)
In terms of vocal agility and tone Isabel Leonard’s wonderfully boyish Cherubino sometimes brought back memories of Frederica von Stade’s portrayal, though Ms. Leonard could usefully find more adolescent ardor in the page’s two arias.
The smaller roles were also solidly cast, with Maurizio Muraro (Don Bartolo), Wendy White (Marcellina), Philip Langridge (Don Basilio) and Ashley Emerson (Barbarina) all making strong contributions.
Dan Ettinger, a newcomer to the Met’s conducting roster, drew a robust, finely polished sound from the orchestra. You had to admire the energy of his reading if not always his tempos. At times his briskness bordered on breathlessness, and that took its toll on a couple of the arias, most notably Cherubino’s “Non so più.” But by the second act Mr. Ettinger began to see the benefits of moderation, and most of the performance was more reasonably paced.