The Met’s ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ a happy marriage of ensemble singing and acting
The cast of supporting roles was especially strong in the company’s new production of Mozart’s matchless masterpiece
If I could bottle one production of one opera to pour for friends who have never seen an opera before but are curious about the art form, it would be this new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
This Figaro was very special for one reason only. It was not the singing, which was solid but not exceptional by Met standards. It was certainly not the updating of the action to 1930s Spain, nor the new set — a massive, claustrophobic, monochromatic clump of rotating gold cylinders. No, the pleasure came from the cast of young, athletic, handsome singers who acted as if they were part of the Steppenwolf Theater Company in Chicago.
For fashioning this Figaro into a true ensemble piece we have to thank Sir Richard Eyre, who was in charge of the production. He made this Figaro a lively, funny theater piece, backed by Mozart’s matchless music.
The ringmaster of this Figaro was German soprano Marlis Petersen, the Susanna whom Figaro seeks permission to wed throughout the entire piece. On this afternoon, the opera should really have been titled “The Marriage of Susanna.” Petersen offered a welcome new perspective on this role of the maid in service to the Count and Countess Almaviva. She was no perky soubrette, bouncing around the stage. Rather, Petersen is tall, regal, handsome, cool and very sexy. It is quite clear why the Count lusts after her and wants to bed her before she weds Figaro — an opportunity the Count never achieves during four acts and nearly four hours of pure pleasure for the audience.
Even though Susanna has only one aria for herself, and that comes in the last act, she is on stage constantly, participating in numerous duets and ensemble numbers. She defined her character in the first scene, when she and Figaro are discussing the Count’s interest in Susanna as a bed partner, about which Figaro had been clueless. With graphic thrusts of her pelvis, Petersen made it clear what the Count wanted and suggested that she may be more sexually experienced than either Figaro or the Count imagined. When pretending to seduce the Count in Act Three, Petersen showed a lot of shapely leg.
Petersen was surrounded by a top-notch group of singing actors, almost all of who delivered solid vocal performances. Peter Mattei has played Count Almaviva all over the world. He has mastered projecting aristocratic arrogance and sexual menace. He was particularly strong in his Act Three aria Vedro mentr’io sospiro in which he realizes Susannah is toying with him.
Ildar Abdrazakov was a Figaro not nearly as clever as the Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, which launches this tale of the Almavivas. This Figaro took his cues from Susanna. He was open faced and genial, but slow on the uptake. Those who saw the company’s Prince Igor last year will remember his strong baritone voice in the title role. He was equally resonant here.
Isabel Leonard, one of the world’s leading mezzo sopranos, was a believably punk, androgynous Cherubino. She delivered both of her signature arias with a mixture of humor and pathos, with solid technique. Leonard is also quite fit. She pumped through a half dozen push-ups at one point, and she climbed about fifteen feet to reach an open window in the Countess’s bedroom, out of which she jumped straight down to an unseen garden.
These four were clearly having fun, and it was a pleasure to watch them interact.
Amanda Majeski as the Countess Almaviva matched Susannah in height and regal bearing. They could have been sisters. But her portrayal presented some problems. She wore a perpetual frown as she fretted about the boorish behavior of her husband. This makes sense, but she projected such frigidity that she was not as sympathetic a character as she should be. The spunky and funny Rosina of the Barber, her character in the Rossini opera, was long gone.
Majeski’s singing was also not quite up to the level set by the others. Her first aria, Porgi Amor, was tentative, lacking volume. Her voice did not have much cream in it. She settled more comfortably into Dove Sono and delivered a more assured performance, but not one that touched the audience. Her voice at this stage is a bit small of a house this large. Majeski is the least experienced of the five leads, so this must be considered. She will undoubtedly grow into this great role.
The cast of supporting players was especially strong. Susanne Mentzer was a younger Marcellina than normal, not really old enough to have been Figaro’s mother — a surprise that surfaces in the third act. Her rivalry with Susanna produced sparks and a spirited duet in Act One.
The veteran John Del Carlo as Bartolo sounded congested in his Act One aria in which he swears revenge on Figaro for how he was outfoxed in the Rossini opera, and he struggled with the top notes. But his voice cleared later and he became a funny, barrel-chested contributor in the ensembles.
Greg Fedderly exhibited an uncommonly clear and forceful tenor as Basilio, the scheming singing teacher. Philip Cokorinos, in strong voice, was not the usual drunken gardener staggering around the stage, which was a relief. Ying Fang made a very promising debut as Barbarina, who eventually becomes Cherubino’s love match.
In Eyre’s updating of the action from 18th century Seville to the 1930s, he bled all the politics out of the opera. Figaro can and should be seen as the rumblings of the peasantry against the aristocracy and its privileges. In 1930s Seville, that doesn’t work. As a result, Eyre’s Figaro was only a comedy about sexual couplings and uncouplings.
However, the 1930s setting did allow costume designer Rob Howell to create some smashing outfits. Majeski wore two gowns — one an eye-catching black and white number. (Alert the Met bookkeepers: She wore it for just a few minutes.) The other was a memorable magenta and black beauty. This one was crucial to sorting out the complexities of the last act, in which Susanna and the Countess swap dresses and identities to fool the Count. Because both Majeski and Petersen are tall, the switcheroo was believable, as was the Count’s confusion. Eyre, for one of the few times I can remember, managed to stage this scene coherently.
Howell also provided a spiffy double-breasted blue jacket and white pants outfit for the Count, plus a riding outfit of jodhpurs and boots. Cherubino sported a white suit and vest with a Panama hat plus a black tuxedo.
While the gold cylinders dominating the stage quickly grew tiresome, the two in the center rotated to provide quick scene changes. At one point they created the illusion of long hallways in the Almaviva mansion, allowing the Count to chase after Cherubino in convincing fashion.
The set also worked well for the last act set in a pine forest. Here, a single large pine tree grew through the center of one of the cylinders. A second-level tree house was placed above the stage in the branches. On this platform Cherubino and Barbarina looked down on the action below, wide-eyed. It was a nice touch.
James Levine remains a peerless Mozart conductor, and the Met Orchestra played with finesse. He made liberal use of the tympani. The grand final 20 minutes of the Act Two ensemble finale traversed the same aural landscape as the Jupiter Symphony. Levine was greeted with adoration by the audience, acknowledging the applause from his specially made wheelchair.
This Figaro returns on December 4 for another long run with a new conductor (Edo de Waart) and a new cast. Perhaps they can capture the magic of this cast and conductor, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
What: Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, Live at The Met
Who: Metropolitan Opera
When: Saturday matinee, Oct. 18, 2014
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Time of performance: About four hours, including intermission