Class conflicts a thing of the past in Glimmerglass Opera’s 20th-century setting of Figaro
When ‘droit de seigneur’ succumbs to ‘droit de director’
Some operas can tolerate or profit from a change in time or place. Beethoven’s political drama Fidelio is one. Tyranny is tyranny. Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffman is another. If the title character is on drugs and hopelessly in love, what difference does the setting make?
But Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is not such an opera.
By setting the Glimmerglass Opera production in the early twentieth century, director Leon Major stripped it of the class conflicts and revolutionary sentiments that animate it. What is one to make of the Count’s attempts to exercise his droit de seigneur with Susanna when it is obvious this custom had long since disappeared? When the Count is just another guy on stage, and when Susanna is dressed more attractively than her mistress, something is amiss.
Fortunately, a young, talented and eager cast mostly overcame Major’s efforts to sabotage Mozart’s greatest work. Lovers of this desert island opera will be content with this Glimmerglass production, but not transported.
Major also flunked the test of making sense of the fourth act, with its pairs of disguised lovers trying to humiliate the Count. Admittedly this is a difficult scene to realize. But this production offered no garden and few places to hide. The space was dominated by an ugly, broken-down wagon with large metal wheels. Figaro hid under it. Others crouched by the side. Anyone not intimately familiar with the story would have no idea what Major was trying to do. For newcomers, this is not the way to sell opera.
Costumes for nobility and peasants alike were dull shades of beige and cream, with only Susanna’s blue dress providing some color.
Conductor David Angus led a generally swift performance that bounced along nicely except in the one place that it must bounce: Cherubino’s panic in Act Two at the return of the Count and his leap from the Countess’s window into the garden. Here the pace lagged and none of the breathlessness in the score came across.
Angus and his young cast experienced some coordination problems early on, particularly during the opening banter between Susanna and Figaro in their bedroom-to-be, and in Cherubino’s first aria Non so più cosa son. Throughout the performance the cast was attentive to Angus. Although this was the fourth performance of the run, most of the singers were not yet fully inside their parts.
The two exceptions, fortunately, were the two most important singers: the Figaro of Patrick Carfizzi and the Susanna of Lyubov Petrova. They were the rocks anchoring this production.
Carfizzi’s baritone is large, flexible and appealing. He and Petrova blended well and exhibited some sexual chemistry. He was credible in the many moods Mozart assigns him: the angry Figaro who realizes the Count has his eye on Susanna; the scheming Figaro trying to outfox the Count; the dumfounded Figaro who learns Marcellina is his mother; and the wounded Figaro who believes Susanna is cheating on him. Carfizzi will be a splendid Figaro in The Barber of Seville, too. One could clearly see that Figaro on stage. (The harpsichord player, Jonathan Kelly, seems to agree. At one point he interpolated a riff from the Largo al factotum.)
Petrova’s voice is a bit heavier than it was when she sang Cleopatra two years ago in the Glimmerglass Giulio Cesare. Indeed, she could have been an equally effective Countess in this production. She is a fine actress and a solid ensemble singer, which is important for Susanna. Her duet with the Countess in Act Three about the gentle breezes caressed the ear.
Caitlin Lynch was the Countess. She is a young singer, and judging from her resume, this is the most significant undertaking of her career. She delivered both her great arias — Porgi, amor in Act Two and Dove sono in Act Three—with great skill. The latter brought a tear to the eye. But she didn’t project the elegant weariness necessary to make the Countess a flesh and blood object of pity. Someday she will.
Casting mezzo Aurhelia Varak as Cherubino was a gamble. She is a tiny woman, barely coming up to the neck of the Countess. Imagining her as credible love interest for any of the females on stage was not possible. She didn’t look like a gawky love-struck teen being sent off to war by the Count. Rather, she was a 12 year-old ready for summer camp. Her costume was a ludicrous striped sports jacket, tie, and a newsboy hat. Despite the visual problems, she delivered both her beloved arias with skill if not the ardor and pathos of a von Stade or a Graham.
The Count should loom over a Figaro production as an unpredictable force of aristocratic lechery. Mark Schnaible’s baritone is a bit under-powered for the role. He delivered his Act Three aria accusing Susanna of trickery with accuracy, but without the snarl to make it work. Leon Major did him no favor requiring that he stay seated in a chair while delivering it. Why not let him stalk the stage? Much of the time this Count simply disappeared in the staging.
The rest of the cast was uniformly strong. Particular mention must be made of Haeran Hong in the role of Barbarina, she of the famous aria in which she is searching for the lost pin. She is a member of the company’s Young American Artists Program, which is doing yeoman service this summer. Hong is still studying at Juilliard, but she was already a finalist in the 2010 Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions. Some day soon she will be a great Pamina or Susanna. She is also cute as a button, with a clear, silvery voice, a blinding smile, and great stage presence.
It was a pleasure NOT to have the gardener Antonio played as a falling-down-drunk. Credit to Major for that. Robert Kerr, who is also singing the Sacristan in Tosca this summer, made him a believable character and not just a joke. He knew who had jumped from that window. Kerr, too, has a very bright future as a baritone.
One directorial touch from Major was actually pretty funny, if not contrary to the score. When Figaro sends Cherubino off to war at the end of Act One with the aria Non più andrai, it is usually staged in a martial manner, with Cherubino shouldering a musket. That is what the music and lyrics demand. Major decided to re-create the shaving scene from The Barber of Seville. Figaro sits Cherubino down in a chair and lathers him up, just as he always does to Doctor Bartolo in every production of the Barber. No matter that this Cherubino could not possibly have had anything on his face t
o shave. It was a clever inside operatic joke.
Did it help Mozart? No. But then that was clearly not Leon Major’s goal in this production. The cast saved him.
What: Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro
When: July 24, 2010
Who: Glimmerglass Opera
Time: 3 hours and 15-minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $126