Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Mozart composed Figaro in 1786. Its libretto was written by Lorenz Da Ponte (who was also Mozart's collaborator on Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, based on Pierre Beaumarchais' play The Mad Day, or the Marriage of Figaro. That play was a sequel to Beaumarchais' earlier play, The Barber of Seville, carrying over three of its central characters: Doctor Bartolo, Count Almaviva, and Figaro, the count's wily servant. The Barber of Seville had already been successfully transformed into an opera in 1782 by Giovanni Paisiello (Rossini's more enduring version followed later), and Mozart felt he could fashion The Marriage of Figaro into an equal, if not superior, operatic work.
Indeed, Mozart captures the essence of comic opera, using music to drape genuine emotion around the preposterous shenanigans of a randy and willful group of characters. At the center are two betrothed servantsFigaro, valet to the Count, and Susanna, maid to the Countessto be wed and given a residence in a bedroom right beside Count Almaviva's chamber, the better for him to maintain his amorous pursuit of Susanna. A woman from Figaro's past, Marcellina, arrives with a contract stating that Figaro must marry her as the consequence of his failure to repay a debt. The Count believes his young page boy, Cherubino, a lad eager to explore the glories of sex, to be making advances on his wife and places him on a distant assignment. The Countess, aware of her husband's infidelities, schemes with her trusted maid Susanna to entrap him. A crusty music teacher has his own designs on Susanna, and Doctor Bartolo has an interest in supporting Marcellina's claim against Figaro to settle old scores. The plot manages to make sense, in spite of its giddiness, but it is the music that makes substance of the occasion.
Led by music director Michael Christie, the orchestra delivers Mozart's score with such beautiful care, creating moments of soaring passion, arch humor, aching despair, and frisky mischief, that it easily is reason enough to spend three hours at the Ordway. Stage director Stephen Lawless keeps the action moving, seamlessly blocking transitions within an ever-shifting set composed of two sculpted walls, moved into varied V-shaped configurations, to create bedroom, state room, and garden settings. Within those two walls are doors and windows used brilliantly for the many swift entrances and exits, leaps into hiding places, and as screens behind which characters can eavesdrop on one another. Leslie Travers, who designed the set, also created the colorful period costumes, making the people on stage stand out brightly before the monochromatic walls behind them.
The four leads at the opening night performance all gave beautiful voice to their roles, with soprano Johanni van Oostrum as Countess Almaviva magnificent in her solo spots, and Richard Ollarsaba's sonorous bass blending Figaro's bracingly masculine and mischievous qualities. Jacques Imbrailo, as the philandering Count Almaviva delivered his characters unsavoriness by way of a well-toned baritone, and soprano Angela Mortellaro infused Susanna with independence and playfulness.
In other roles, Adriana Zabala is adorable as the frisky Cherubino, Count Almaviva's page boy eager to taste the fruits of sensuality. As is the custom, this boy's role is written to be sung by a soprano. Matt Boehler is appropriately disagreeable as Doctor Bartolo, his bass voice used to good effect in his desire to settle old scores. Wm. Clay Thompson does well in the small role of Antonio, the Count's gardener, whose confusion about the goings on in the home and garden add to the jocular side of the opera, and Christina Christensen provides flourish and bawdy energy as his daughter Barbarina.
In all, there is not a weak voice among the cast. The chorus adds a fullness of sound to several scenes. Dance elements in keeping with the story's setting, choreographed by Eric Sean Fogel, add additional energy to what is always a lively production.
The story being told is awash in outdated male chauvinism, and a plot based heavily on a wealth gentleman's persistent pressure for sexual favors from an employee (making matters worse, the employee is his wife's maid, who is engaged to be married to the gentleman's valet) sounds like the stuff of this week's breaking news. Another character is hotly pursuing satisfaction of a marriage contract, not for love but for the dollars at stake. A scowler might want to shut the whole thing down. But in the end, the rascal gets his comeuppance and sees the light, the marriage contract is nullified, and the characters all wind up poised for moving forward on a righteous path.
The plot features two strong women, neither of whom roll over to please or placate the men. There is also a good bit of satire against the ruling classso much that Beaumarchais' play had been censored by King Louis XVI for three years before giving in to his wife, Marie Antoinette, and allowing it to be performed. Given the time in which it was written, The Marriage of Figaro actually speaks rather strongly against its status quo. It was a demonstration of courage as well as wit, a combination much in demand on today's stages.
For anyone who loves the music of Mozart, and especially the exquisitely lilting music he composed for The Marriage of Figaro, or who enjoys an old-school farce staged with robust energy and a commitment to the form, or who is inspired by beautiful, inventive stagecraft, this production is well worth seeing. With abundant humor, it manages to braid together this passel of people steeped in immorality and wind up with a moral conclusion. Opera lovers, take note. Those unfamiliar with the form are likely to find this The Marriage of Figaro a happy introduction to the joys of opera.
The Marriage of Figaro continues through November 19, 2017, a production of Minnesota Opera presented at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 -$220.0. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; Libretto: Lorenz Da Ponte; Conductor: Michael Christie; Stage Director: Stephen Lawless; Choreographer: Eric Sean Fogel; Assistant Director: David Radamés Toro; Chorusmaster: Lindsay Woodward; Set and Costume Design: Leslie Travers; Lighting Design: Thomas C. Hase; Projections Design: Doug Provost; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Répétiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; English Captions: Jeremy Sortore; Stage Manager: Kerry Masek.
Cast: Andres Acosta (Don Basilio/Don Curzio), Matt Boehler (Doctor Bartolo), Christina Christensen (Barbarina), Nadia Fayad (Marcellina), Mary Evelyn Hangley* (Countess Almaviva), Jeni Houser* (Susanna), Jacques Imbrailo* (Count Almaviva), Angela Mortellaro* (Susanna), Richard Ollarsaba* (Figaro), Donovan Singletary* (Figaro), Wm. Clay Thompson (Antonio), Christian Thurston* (Count Almaviva), Johanni van Oostrum* (Countess Almaviva), Adrian Zabala (Cherubino). * alternate performances