Le Nozze Di Figaro
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart-Lorenzo da Ponte
The Metropolitan Opera, 2/11/2015
Figaro – Adam Plachetka
Susanna – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Count Almaviva – Etienne Dupuis
Countess Almaviva – Amanda Woodbury
Cherubino – Marianne Crebassa
Dr. Bartolo – Maurizio Muraro
Marcellina – MaryAnn McCormick
Don Basilio – Keith Jameson
Antonio – Paul Corona
Barbarina – Maureen McKay
Don Curzio – Tony Stevenson
Harpsichord – Howard Watkins
Cello – David Heiss
Conductor, Cornelius Meister
Production, Richard Eyre
Designer, Rob Howell
Lighting Designer, Paule Constable
Choreographer, Sara Erde
Revival Stage Director, Jonathon Loy
(In this production the music of the Two Peasant Girls is sung by the artists performing the roles of Barbarina and Cherubino.)
In Sir Richard Eyre’s complex production, which premiered on opening night, September 2014, Rob Howell’s rotating set looms oppressively over the Almavivas and their household, as it reaches up towards the catwalks like a cross between a spire of La Sagrada Família and a decaying oil tank. I don’t say this in disparagement. The set is highly effective. Rotating as it does, it can present small rooms, like the one intended for Susanna and Figaro, larger rooms, like the Countess’ bedroom, and very large spaces like the great hall, dividing the expanse of the Met’s stage into a central and flanking areas, as well as some space above, when called for. We can also see from one space into another, allowing us to get glimpses of the goings-on in other parts of the building—daily life in a noblman’s country residence. Its ornament suggests the Moorish, with hints more implied than defined of the Gothic and Baroque, and leans more to Lorenzo da Ponte’s original indication, “il castello del Conte Almaviva”1 than “an elegant Spanish villa.” And the set tells its story…a story of decay. The customs of this ancient house reach back to the time it was built, centuries before the action, whether it takes place in the time imagined by Beaumarchais or in the 1930s, as specified for this production. The ius primae noctis, the right of the lord to supplant the husband on the wedding night of a serf or servant, referred to in the opera, if a reality, enjoyed its heyday between the 9th and the 15th centuries. One of the many telling insights here is easy way the Count carries himself through its halls. He, above all, feels entirely at home here—more so than any of the ten other individuals who are caught up in this “folle journée.”
Setting the action in the 1930s is another nice touch, inviting us to experience the opera in reference to a modern classic, Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, La Règle du jeu, which was inspired (secondarily after Musset’s Les caprices de Marianne) by Beaumarchais’ original play, as well as the opera da Ponte and Mozart drew from it…not to mention many attractive costumes which allow freer movement than the dress of 18th century aristocrats and their servants.
From every quarter—the staging, the acting, the singing, and the orchestra—this came across as an eminently satisfying reading of da Ponte and Mozart’s masterpiece: everyone involved seemed to “get it right,” beginning with the eleven disparate characters, who, whether related by blood, marriage, or attraction, participate in—actually create—the madness of the day from profoundly different points of view and with fundamentally differing agendas. They are all basically simple people, but their limitations create complicated results—compounded by the ill effects of ignorance, intrigue, disguise, and deception. Cherubino wants any number of women—until Barbarina manipulates him into marriage. The aging Marcellina wants a young, capable husband—obtainable because Figaro naïvely promised to marry her, if he didn’t pay back a sum he borrowed. Susanna obtains the funds to release him from the bond, but the situation is totally upended by the discovery that Figaro, stolen by gypsies as a baby, is in fact her son. The Count, bored with his wife, defaults to the behavior of his male ancestors and pursues servant girls, at this moment, Susanna. The Countess is feels painfully neglected and wants the love of her husband back. Figaro and Susanna simply want to get married. Figaro is a clever manipulator, as he once proved in setting the intrigues in motion that won the Count his wife in Beaumarchais’ Le barbier de Séville, but his intellectual skills stop there, and the irony is that he is actually quite naïve, gladly accepting the Count’s offer of a bedroom placed between and connecting with, both his room and the Countess’, making Susanna, as she immediately points out, vulnerable to his advances, whenever he can get Figaro out of the way. Figaro reacts in anger to this revelation and immediately hatches a plot to thwart the Count, while counterplots against him are in motion. The intrigues are all the result of subservient cunning, bred into generations of servants and subjects having to deal with the absolute rights and power of their masters. If the Count must resort to intrigue, it is because of recent changes in the law and in custom. Susanna herself is the only character who can rise above tradition and sort things out, not only in respect to her own triangular situation between Figaro and the Count, but for Cherubino and the Countess as well. The desires of the entire cast come together in Susanna, who is in fact the keystone of the action.
I’ve mentioned this at length because the most significant excellence of this performance—above the “culinary” pleasures of the outstanding singing, orchestral playing, and conducting—was in the focus brought to the interaction of the characters. We owe this largely to Hanna-Elisabeth Müller‘s strong and beautiful performance as Susanna. Her assets lay in her personal appeal as an actress and in her splendid voice. Perfectly focused in the center of her notes, her voice is basically rich in tone, even sumptuous, with a fully integrated brilliance, which enables her to cut through an orchestral tutti or ensemble without any forcing. In fact Müller’s performance bordered on understatement, which was one of its most winning qualities. In her acting she could make hairpin turns between a glowing or a sexy smile and a more severe expression of calculation or or determinedness, always without exaggeration or comedic clichés, and her voice, while never abandoning vocal elegance, could follow the dramatic moment with equal agility. Richard Eyre and stage director Jonathon Loy placed Susanna at the core of the opera, and Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was more than equal to the challenge.
The scheduled Countess, Anita Hartig, was indisposed, and the role was engagingly performed by Amanda Woodbury. She seemed well in control of the complex blockings and movement on stage and sang very beautifully, with a gorgeous, rich soprano, very full in the lower register as well as at the top, and strong phrasing, which suited the music well and avoided an excess of the elegiac. She could still burst into a joyous bloom in pleasurable moments, as when she is playing around (“disporting oneself” I think it’s called) with Cherubino on her bed. Like Müller, Woodbury never broke out of the ensemble spirit of the opera and the production. The role of the Contessa can often overwhelm because of the beauty of the music Mozart gave her.
Marianne Crebassa proved an unforgettable Cherubino. An impeccable singer with a perfectly balanced mezzo voice, she never exaggerated her musical lines for comic effect or overacted, and, with her lithe movement on stage, she was equally appealing in both her male and “fausse” female guises. I could imagine her “owning” this role for years to come. Similarly MaryAnn McCormick and Maureen McKay sang Marcellina and Barbarina respectively with humor, style, and vocal mastery.
Etienne Dupuis‘ Count was another treasure of the evening. Younger than usual, closer to forty than fifty, which makes sense, his more lyric baritone, still resonant in the lower range and large in general, made for a fairly complex figure, one who is really able to see the value of his relationship with his wife in the end and to ask her forgiveness sincerely. (Herr Meister adopted an almost mystical breadth of tempo for this part.) Before, he is largely under the control of his desire for Susanna and an atavistic compulsion to satisfy his craving and his will. It may be that he feels in love with her in a Cherubino-ish way as well, but the production makes it clear that his eye and hands are accustomed to wandering. I suspect he may have benefited from a close study of Marcel Dalio’s great performance as a count of more recent mint in La Règle du jeu, one who did not, like Almaviva, grow up in an ancestral castle and palace.
Adam Plachetka had a tall, full bodily frame, an expansive and resonant bass-baritone, and a fine, witty gift for comic acting to portray a good-natured Figaro, lacking Susanna’s intellligence and ability to see around the obvious, but frank and honest in his feelings and ready to use his native skills at manipulating an autocrat, as had once done for Almaviva when Don Bartolo, as the guardian of the future Countess, was the misguided authority to overcome. His down-to-earth Figaro sang with passion and considerable elegance, a pleasure see and hear on the stage throughout.
Maurizio Muraro looked every inch the Mediterranean professional and addressed his part with his imposing, but refined comic bass. His musicianship and acting were particularly detailed, and he showed no interest in the clichés which might make him seem like and old fool. As with Marcellina, his warm feelings for his former enemy, so roundly declared in his opening tirade, now his son, redeemed his former malevolence. Keith Jameson’s Don Basilio, the music master, and Tony Stevenson’s Don Curzio, who takes over the legal functions in da Ponte’s adaptation, both tenors, sang extremely well, equal to the rest of the cast and free of any trite distortions of their fine voices. Their acting was convincing enough to dispense with any outdated clowning. Finally the gardener, Antonio, Barbarina’s father and Susanna’s uncle, was likewise sung as a real human being by Paul Corona, displaying a capacious and mellifluous bass voice.
Cornelius Meister, Music Director of the Staatsoper und Staatsorchester Stuttgart since 2018, conducted with energy, good humor, and control. Balances were just the right mixture of brilliance and resonant lower octaves one could want. I believe that my brain did fill in a few details here and there in the tutti. He made the horns prominent in places where they announced a turn of the plot or added the color he wanted, to fine effect given the clean playing of the Met Orchestra’s musicians. Meister also showed a particularly fine ear for dynamics, and pulled the orchestra down for some wonderful pianissimi in places. Cornelius Meister will clearly become more and more of a fixture in the major opera houses, and I look foreward to hearing more of him.
One further point about the gratifying dramatic qualities of this performance—one of the finest I have heard in this respect. As soon as I noticed the credit to Jonathon Loy as stage director, I understood where the fine detail and coordination among the cast as actors as well as singers came from. With this cue, I recognized the “Loy touch,” which has since 2016 been enriching our lives in the Berkshires, with the meticulously prepared, lively, and humane productions of the Berkshire Opera Festival, which Mr. Loy co-founded with Brian Garman, Music Director of the Festival. I was more than pleased that New York audiences could enjoy the fruits of his dramatic talents and hard work, which he and Mr. Garman will apply to another important da Ponte-Mozart opera, Don Giovanni, in late August and early September.
This intelligent production, as superbly sung and acted as it was, is a triumph of focused understatement and a potent an example of the Met at its best.
- sometimes replaced, as the libretto is reprinted, by Beaumarchais’ “le château d’Aguas Frescas à trois lieues de Séville,” accordingly translated. ↩