by Adam Marguiies
Le nozze di Figaro has the strange capacity to engage on every level from the ridiculous buffoonery of stock commedia dell’arte, to the über-emotional and truly tragic moments of love and betrayal. Scholars have noted that it is due to the ingenuity of Da Ponte and Mozart that opera buffa came to full maturity as a respectable art form. Until the collaboration of these two geniuses, opera buffa was dependent upon the use of fantastical slapstick, and even in the few instances where tragedy and comedy were intertwined into one evening’s entertainment, it was never presented in one character; herein lies the genius of a work like Le nozze di Figaro. Comedy and tragedy are really two sides of the same coin, and what one might perceive as a tragedy, another might find as terribly funny.
Evaluating the situations in Le nozze di Figaro could very well leave one struck by the gravity of events in this household. The issues vary from the relationship between man and woman, between master and servant, sexual rights, and harassment, all in the context of a decaying social backdrop, unknowingly ready to erupt. It is profoundly political, as well as being terribly amusing. How many operas of this vintage, which rely so heavily on satire, have aged quite so well?
All of the events and all of the people in this opera, though they seem distant from our world, are genuine in one form or another, as opposed to mere one-dimensional caricatures whose sole purpose is to adumbrate a witty and engaging plot line, without reference or feeling to the loftier ideals of such a piece as this. These characters are all used by Mozart, Da Ponte and Beaumarchais to give commentary on the society in which they were living. After all, the name Figaro comes from the French “Fils Caron,” (pronounced: “fee karo”) meaning son of Caron, Caron being Beaumarchais’ actual name. In his world, if you were not of noble blood, then you had to survive by relying on your wits.
Jonathan Miller’s beautiful period production set in the 18th century, gave us a staging and direction that were of the highest possible caliber. The sets and lighting, clearly designed with sensitivity to both the time span and the highly stylized fashions of the day, could not have been more refined. Using bright flood lights in Acts I and II to denote day time, and warm candle light balanced with dark filters of blue light for Acts III and IV, it successfully convinced the audience that the action did indeed take place during a single “folle giornata” or “The Day of Madness”, as the opera is known by its alternative title.
The staging, now under the direction of Gregory Keller, gave weight to both the comic and tragic aspects of the opera, thankfully with a bit more emphasis on the comedic side of the scale. There were of course the stock-stage actions so ubiquitous in every Figaro production, such as the always amusing merry-go-round of the chair, which miraculously hides both the Count and Cherubino from the curious Don Basilio in Act I. To use a very American expression “If it aint broke… don’t fix it!” There is after all only so much new material one can squeeze out of a two hundred year old classic, but Mr Keller did well in delivering a fresh staging that was, more than anything, entertaining and engaging. There were times when it seemed just a little chaotic, mainly during the first Act duet of Figaro and Susanna, and also at the beginning of “Non più andrai”, but this was no doubt due to opening night jitters, as the cast quickly created an entertaining evening full of laughter and honest sentiment.
One of the stipulations of Le nozze di Figaro is that one is never really alone, and no conversation is really private. The action takes place in the villa of the Count and Countess Almaviva. Peter Davison’s set design made inventive use of both windows and hallways, to enable the clever positioning of spying servants behind doors, as well as curious maids peering in through windows. All of which allowed the audience to get a feeling that they were a part of this home, and also that spying on the drama unfolding in front of their eyes was a natural development of the production. In this way the characters became more human as the spectacle drew to a close.
The role of Figaro was sung by the handsome and richly-voiced John Relyea. His character was initially arch, but soon became noble, offering an interesting juxtaposition to the role of the Count, played brilliantly by Bo Skovhus. This Count was more of a Falstaffian-buffoon than a dignified gentleman. Both men, seemingly standing at over six feet tall, cut masculine stage personas and used this presence to their advantage. Skovhus’s voice is perhaps more reminiscent of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as the Count, rather than someone like Gabriel Baquier, but he uses his lyricism intelligently and gives a fine and polished interpretation. Susanna was sung by the beautiful Lindeman Young Artist Program graduate, Danielle de Niese, having significantly moved on from her company debut performance back in October 1998 as Barbarina. The soon to be Mrs Christie (care of Glyndebourne Opera House) was energetic and full of the right kind of physical comedy needed to illuminate all the possibilities of her role. When we consider that to sing a role like Susanna at The Metropolitan Opera you require a voice type which is perhaps closer to a helden soubrette than anything else, one wonders if such a beautiful voice isn’t perhaps better suited to the specialized baroque niche for which she has become so popular of late? Her comedic timing also worked very well with the charismatic duo of Marcellina and Don Bartolo, sung by the veteran mezzo-soprano Wendy White, and the delightful Maurizio Muraro.
Emma Bell, already a celebrated Elettra, made her Metropolitan Opera debut in a commanding performance of the Countess. Although her “Porgi amor” was less than distinguished, she received a well-deserved and great ovation following her superb rendition of “Dove sono”. She sang with class and prodigious vocal reserves, leaving the audience feeling that a new and very special soprano had arrived in town. It is a less creamy voice than your usual Countess, with dark overtones defining the timbre, but this only served to make her performance all the more exciting. The top of the voice is certainly freer and more open than the rest, with a vibrant cutting edge characterizing the sound. There is plenty of vibrato, but also superb control. The middle register appears to be far plummier in sound, and perhaps placed a little too far back. Her pianissimo however was exquisite, and the audience rightly acclaimed her Countess at the curtain calls as a great success. This is a voice which has a golden age quality about it. Whether one equates that age with Regine Crespin, Gwyneth Jones or even Eleanor Steber, make no mistake about it, Emma Bell is someone quite special indeed.
The charming Cherubino was well sung by the lyric mezzo-soprano, Isabel Leonard. As a compliment to her acting style, one soon forgot whether she was a he or she, and instead enjoyed her truly magical stage presence. For anyone who fails to recognize it, there is a definite agreement between the composer and performer, which demands that both parties give their best efforts in affording the audience the opportunity to vicariously live, or recall, certain periods in their lives, through the medium of these larger than life characters. It seems to me that there could not be a man alive, who after listening to Ms Leonard’s “Non so più” would fail to recall those early days of discovery and palpitations! It has been a pleasure to see this artist grow and develop since her debut in 2007 in Romeo and Juliet, and last year as Zerlina in Don Giovanni. She is undoubtedly becoming an important addition to The Metropolitan Opera.
The orchestra of The Metropolitan Opera gave an inspired rendition of the score, and the young conductor Dan Ettinger, in his Metropolitan Opera debut, elegantly demonstrated his capable reading of the repertoire with finesse and well judged tempi. It will be exciting to see where he will go from here. But in the final reckoning, this opera is a true ensemble work, and this cast validated yet again Mozart’s genius in composing an opera such as Le nozze di Figaro, by performing it so well. All of the principals were entirely successful in communicating the humanity of these fascinating characters, which today still speaks to audiences more then two hundred years after its conception. In an age when issues of sex and class still plague society, it is interesting to see that some part of mankind is, and always has been, striving for betterment and equity.