LA OPERA'S LE NOZZE DI FIGARO: a production worthy of Mozart's masterpiece

Los Angeles Opera's revival of its 2004 production once again proved to be worthy of Mozart's universally acknowledged masterpiece of music-theater, thanks to Maestro Kent Nagano's as-always superb musical direction that brought out the best from the orchestra and the outstanding cast. And there was no mistaking it - everyone, onstage and off, had a lot of fun!

Mozart's version of "Upstairs, Downstairs," Le Nozze di Figaro has got to be the most enjoyable musical articulation of the human foibles expressed, in Mozart's time and ours, as sexual indiscretions.  The opera, with libretto by the defrocked Abbe Lorenzo Da Ponte, is a riotous comedy of class and sexual tensions that happily resolve themselves in the end.

Yes, it's all about sex and a bit of class politics, circa 18th century Europe.  And it took the genius of a  Mozart to seamlessly weave music and text into the unified work that has come to be hailed by many as perhaps the greatest opera in the world. The story, extracted from playwright Pierre Augustin-Caron de Beaumarchais' then scandalous comedy, is an intricate web of amorous subplots and confused subterfuges, peppered with politically subversive undertones that allowed Mozart to poke fun at the ruling classes and their one-sided legal system.

Figaro is of course the same Figaro, the erstwhile "Barber of Seville," who connived with a younger Count Almaviva in his efforts to win Rosina from her guardian Dr. Bartolo. Figaro becomes the Count's manservant. Years pass, the Count's love for Rosina, now the Countess, has cooled off. At the moment he lusts for Figaro's betrothed, the Countess' maid Susanna, determined to have her on her wedding night - claimant to his conveniently reinstated right as lord of the manor! The plot thickens as Figaro, now aware of his master's intent, schemes to beat the noble Count at his game.  As the scenes excerpted below show, there is never a dull moment, and unless one goes to the opera looking for imperfections, there is everything to like about this production.  

Photos: ©Robert Millard, courtesy of Los Angeles Opera

From the moment one heard the first measures of the familiar overture, delivered robustly and with impeccable polish, one knew this was going to be a very special Mozart evening. True, director Ian Judge did not precisely place the story, which takes place in the space of one day, in historical time. Between bedroom telephones and flashlights glowing in the dark and period britches and elegant summer suits, the time swings from 18th century to contemporary and back were almost as frequent as Cherubino's self-confessed mood swings. But we found these external incongruities to be neither bothersome nor distracting. Indeed, in an opera buffa such as Figaro they were more than tolerable, they were very much part of the fun. And perhaps Judge meant to tell us this: that the internal actions in Figaro that take place in the hearts and minds of the characters are for any time and any place.

The cast without exception sang in excellent voice, inhabiting the characters with an innate flair for the comic. Soprano Barbara Bonney, winsome in her company debut as Susanna, around whose predicament the plot revolved, was radiant in voice and demeanor.  She revealed herself to be a natural comedienne; it is no wonder she has owned the soubrette role for years. 

The young Russian bass Ildar Abdrazakov was a handsomely suave and stalwart Figaro with a voice to match. It is a role he has obviously grown into since his debut at the famed Marinsky Theatre, and it predictably will be one of the signature roles of his rising career.

Baritone David Pittsinger was solid and convincing as the unstoppable, jealous Count and Canadian soprano Adrianne Pieczonka was stately and sympathetic as the despondent Countess as she was as the Marschallin (in LA Opera's Der Rosenkavalier  of an earlier season) - was she born to sing the role of the lovelorn noblewoman? 

The rambunctious Cherubino found a perfect match in mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer - she was a riot and the evening's delight.

In Figaro, Mozart gave his minor characters more than a token piece of the stage and the music. But specially in this production, it was impossible not to have been singularly amused by Anna Steiger's charmingly comic and well-sung Marcellina. Greg Fedderly as Don Basilio, Michael Gallup as Dr. Bartolo, and Jessica Swink as Barbarina all spiced up the evening's hilarity.

The curtain fell as the last sparks from the real-life fireworks that celebrated the Marriage of Figaro faded into the night.  The fireworks were the one spectacle of Tim Goodchild's lean but imaginative stage sets. But this "Figaro" did not need any more. Under Maestro Kent Nagano's baton, which he wielded for the last time as the company's Music Director, the music itself was the spectacle - with its many arias, duets, sextets, etc. that are the most tuneful in all of opera.  Nagano's farewell performance (he leaves for his new posts in Munich and Montreal) was a fitting and magnificent celebration of Mozart's 250th anniversary. The audience that enjoyed "Figaro" went home with the certain knowledge of what great opera, indeed what great music is (in the words of another great conductor, Sir Thomas Beecham) - played here by an orchestra that has attained international stature under Nagano's leaderhip: "that which penetrates the ear with facility and quits the memory with difficulty."
- © Gloria Cajipe / FanFaire

Note: The Overture in the background is from the Grammy Award-winning recording of Le nozze di Figaro from the Harmonia Mundi Mozart Limited Edition, with René Jacobs conducting the Concerto Köln playing on period instruments.


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