Marriage of Figaro, SF Opera

Written by:
John Sullivan
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The Marriage of Figaro

Comic opera in four acts by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte
Based on the comedy by Beaumarchais
Conducted by Nicola Luisotti
Directed by John Copley
Sept. 21-Oct. 22, 2010

In a season heavy on warhorses, San Francisco Opera needed a light touch with Mozart’s major-key musings on philandering and fidelity. This opera buffa, prone as it is to heavy-handed interpretation and syrupy-slow pacing, calls for a spry cast that can sprint between comic set pieces and stirring arias, all the while keeping the musical themes in perfect balance with the overwrought plot details.

So it’s entirely gratifying that the company has resurrected a potentially cumbersome masterpiece not just by dusting it off but by imbuing it with a freshness and grace that truly reflect the timelessness of the composer’s music. “The Marriage of Figaro” is more than 200 years old, and yet this lively presentation of a classic serves as a testament to Mozart’s ageless appeal.

Director John Copley deserves the effusive praise the company has lavished on him, his fourth time staging this production. (On opening night, General Director David Gockley bestowed him with the San Francisco Opera Medal, the company’s highest honor, for his 30 engagements over three decades with this organization.) Copley’s ability to coax subtleties of humor from the principals, all the while zipping them around Zack Brown’s durable set (designed in 1982), makes the performance sail by on waves of merriment and lilting melody. Music director Nicola Luisotti conducted Mozart’s ebullient score (the first of three collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte) with a spritely pace; the maestro also requested that the pit be raised two feet for this engagement, replicating the 18th-century placement of the orchestra on par with the audience, and it served to lift the music in the Opera House to a level of intimate lucidity rarely heard before.

But Mozart’s work sparkles brightest when matched with brilliant voices, and the cast on opening night proved it. Luca Pisaroni, the Italian bass-baritone in the title role, brings the right mix of bravado and playfulness to his interpretation of Figaro, shadowing his famous first-act aria, “Se vuol ballare,” with a just-you-wait spunkiness, signaling that he won’t let the count thwart his wedding plans. His bride-to-be, Susanna, knows how to play along with his mercurial temperament, and American soprano Danielle De Niese sings the role with the requisite buoyancy and airy charm. This marks her first appearance with the company, and it comes a scant year after her acclaimed debut at the Met in the same role. Her full, round tone here has been noted as a departure from the soubrette style that has become expected in the part. Yet she uses her more mature voice to great advantage, rendering Susanna as a wiser, less flighty woman who knows how to manipulate a situation to her advantage, especially in her dealings with the count. As the latter, baritone Lucas Meachem sings Almaviva as neither a buffoon nor a boor, but simply as a lust-besotted man at odds with his own presumably high morals. Though his lower register was often hard to discern (perhaps a result of the raised volume from the pit) his mid-range was convincing, aiding him in the subtle characterization he creates.
As the Countess, Ellie Dehn showed us the elegant pain she felt in her “Porgi amor” aria, her ornamentation evoking the sadness of lost love. Her supple voice, which moves with ease between despair and giddiness and magnanimity, serves her well as she traverses the libretto’s emotional gamut. To a great degree, the plot’s intricacies—the cross-dressing schemes, the planned tricks to catch the Count in his infidelity, and the ultimate forgiveness that comes from a kind heart—rest on the shoulders of the soprano who sings this key role. Not only does Dehn acquit herself, but she also gives a star-making performance, one she will reprise in Houston. She is quite simply beguiling. (Though the principal casting will change for the last three performances of this run, Dehn will remain, and she’s reason enough to see this production minus its marquee names.)

Other members of the strong cast work as a true ensemble. Mezzo Catherine Cook (a regular with this company, and a trouper with a remarkable roster of roles) sings Marcellina with comic verve and delightful, over-the-top histrionics. John Del Caro makes the pompous Dr. Bartolo less oily and more endearing, especially during the sextet in the third act when he announces that he will marry Marcellina, implausible as that seems (remember, this is a comic opera). Only Michèle Losier, in the trouser role of Cherubino, disappoints. Though she tackles her part as the love-stricken page with abandon, playing up the slapstick and pratfalls, her portrayal of the amorous youth lacks the budding virility that would make us believe all the lusty entreaties inherent in the role.

Though many may complain that the production starts out a bit languorously before galloping to the breathtakingly fast dénouement, it’s a minor point (and one that may well disappear during the run).  So, too, it’s easy to dismiss the quibble that not all the business onstage is all that funny. (Again, this is comic opera, so it’s the thought that counts more than the execution.) Despite its small flaws, this production of “Figaro” marries whimsy and musicality in a delightfully harmonious union.

John Sullivan

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