Metropolitan Opera Review 2014-15 - Le Nozze Di Figaro: A Nuanced & Riveting Production of Mozart's Masterwork
Controversy and opera are not unfamiliar foes, but the former has become increasingly more apparent at the Metropolitan Opera.
A year ago, the company dealt with protests from the LGBT community, and this year's opening night featured protests from the Jewish community, which demanded the company shut down its upcoming show "Death of a Klinghoffer." And this came after a summer filled with the threat of a lockout over contract disputes.
These kinds of manifestations often have the impact of overpowering the actual artistic result taking place in the actual theater. But for the second straight year, art proved the winner yet again.
Richard Eyre is one of the great theatrical (and cinematic) geniuses of our time and his work at the Met has been among the best presented at the theater. While the rest of the opera world seems obsessed with finding the latest way to overthink an opera and embed it with new symbolism, Eyre seems intent on reminding audiences that the works themselves transcend time because they are inherently great without any transformations. And so his past productions, namely "Carmen" and last season's "Werther," serve as reminders that there does not need to be any revolution in order to refresh these 200-year-old classics.
And so it is not surprising that his latest production of Mozart's masterful "Le Nozze di Figaro" follows in the same vein as those productions. Obviously, some will groan about how the Met Opera remains stuck in the past and cannot make its mind up about which theatrical direction it wants to take. It seems that general manager Peter Gelb, taking into consideration his mixed target audience, has opted for evolution rather than revolution (and its inevitable growing pains) and Eyre is the best exponent of that movement.
Eyre sets the opera in the early 1900s and as noted in the program notes takes his cues from Jean Renoir's classic film "The Rules of the Game" (which was inspired by Beaumarchais' original play on which Mozart's opera is also based). The set is placed on a turntable showcasing a total of four major sets, one for each act. Susanna and Figaro's room is a tiny little closet that looks claustrophobic and crammed when compared with the massive grand salon or the imposing bedroom of the Countess. Eyre's production, like his previous two, is cinematic in scope with its seeming elaboration but minimalist touch. For example, the entire set is actually metallic and gothic in design. The bronze look hints at an imprisoning environment; this is especially noticeable in the Countess' bedroom where the looming window itself has vertical and horizontal lines that resemble a prison more than they do a mansion. The rigid structure throughout sets off this feel and denotes Count's towering presence. There are splashes of color in each scene that give the set some dynamism, most notably the subtle orange on the Queen's bed. The final outdoor scene has some lights in the center that give the staging a mystical quality.
As noted, Eyre is not reinventing the wheel here, but there is a clear and concise narrative being told. Each act's set is larger than the last, seemingly emphasizing the characters' taking more control over their respective destinies throughout the story. The overall layout allows for some truly cinematic moments. The end of Act 2 is highlighted by the bed being used as a divider between the two warring parties (Susanna, Figaro, the Countess versus the Count, Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio) while the sextet in the third act (in which Figaro discovers his lineage) showcases Don Curzio and the Count on the extremes of the stage while Figaro and his entourage enjoy their intimate moment in the center. What this does is not only highlight the relationships, but actually gives greater weight to the Count and Curzio's potent musical counterpoint every time it arrives. After the wedding, there is a brief instance in which the couples are congratulated by the guests in the middle of the room upstage, but seated at opposite extremes downstage are the Count and Countess, seemingly apart from this moment of joy. The image is powerfully visual and reveals the depth of the relationship up to this point.
The final scene is spellbinding. The decision to cut Basilio and Marcellina's arias is much appreciated and allows the action to flow at full throttle. The climatic "O Contessa Perdona" is fantastic in the tension it builds. Coupled with conductor James Levine's slow tempo, the ensuing choral moment is not only sublime musically but also filled tremendous suspense. And when the eventual release comes in the form of the long-awaited (or long-desired) reconciliation, the viewer cannot help but feel a tremendous rush of joy.
Arguably the most interesting of directorial cues is Eyre's decision to highlight Cherubino and the Count as foils. A lot of scholarship has been written on how the young boy is turning into nothing more than the unfaithful man that the Count is. And even Figaro seems to acknowledge this relationship in his aria "Non piu andrai." At one point the Count actually makes note that Cherubino follows him everywhere. And Eyre makes Cherubino a shadow of the Count with similar color palettes on their clothing until they are both wearing the identical suits in the opera's final act.
There is so much more to write about this brilliant production, but it really needs to be experienced for the full effect (especially the grand ball, the photograph at the end of Act 3 and Cherubino's wonderfully executed escape through the window).
That said, not everything works. There are certain attempts to break the fourth wall that come off a bit unfinished. The best example of this comes at the end of Act 2 when the characters, in the middle of a feud, decide to stand at the edge of downstage and sing to the audience. The moment is so out of context with everything else that comes before it that it almost comes off as the last resort to a lack of any other ideas on how to end the scene. A later attempt by Figaro during his famous Act 4 aria "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" is far more successful in this respect.
There is also some fumbled and confused staging during the Count and "Susanna's" rendezvous in which Figaro stands around with a camera. He gets slapped by the Count and some confusion ensues, but the motivations for Figaro to approach the Count are unclear and there is also no logical explanation for why the Count fails to notice that his rival is standing right there.
The singers were formidable in every respect. German soprano Marlis Peterson was undeniably the star of the night with her coquettish Susanna. Everything about her, from her delicate voice to her nimble physical, portrayed an intelligent woman in her 20s. And of all the characters, it was Susanna, not Cherubino or the Count, that were most sexually charged. Her "Don Don" was emphasized by some rather explicit gestures and she mounted Figaro in their opening and closing duets. Her voice had a rapturous warmth and sensuality during her famous aria "Deh Vieni, non tardar" and the crescendo at the climactic cadenza highlighted the otherworldly nature of the piece.
As her lover Ildar Abdrazakov was a dashing Figaro. He performed the role two seasons ago and gave the character a similar level of heroism, but his musical interpretation has clearly grown since. His voice seemed to have a gruff potency throughout the early portions of the opera, emphasizing his character's tremendous confidence. This was notable in the opening two arias "Se Vuol Ballare" and "Non piu andrai" where he sang with firmness and directness.
But as the work unraveled and Figaro became more of a puppet in the women's schemes, a frailty set in that opened up his heart to the listener. His cries of "Susanna" during the recitativo leading up the "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" were sung with a fragile thread of voice, beautiful and heartbreaking to listen to. During the ensuing aria, he sang with a tremendous fury while scolding the audience. The final duet with Peterson that ended the act showcased the two singers perfectly attuned to one another emotionally and musically.
A lot has been made in this analysis of how imposing the presence of the Count was in the visual language of the staging, and this was only enhanced by Peter Mattei's towering figure and voice. From his entrance onward, the Swedish Baritone sang with wild abandon. If Susanna was the ultimate female extrovert, he was her male equal from start to finish. His fury during his Act 2 confrontation with the Countess was quite frightening to behold as there was a sense that he might hurl her across the room at any moment. And his menacing and suspicious glares at Cherubino made one fear for the young boy's life. Of course, he was not simply an angry bull, but betrayed a lack of self-confidence. For all of his might, Peter Mattei's Count never really looked like a man in complete control and he constantly showcased a perpetual sense of frustration. His wooing of Susanna came off as a desperate and lacking in any tact or courage. It was as if he was a man who was trying to regain his swagger and prove that he still had "it."
His famous Act 3 aria may signal fury and a desire for revenge, but in Mattei's hands the character seemed a broken man. It is worth pointing out a rather poignant moment earlier in the act after he hears "Hai gia vinto la causa." After the famed line, Mattei's Count stood there in shock, a tremendous dramatic pause. His reaction was one of stupefaction mixed with pain. He was angry, but his realization he had been duped seemed to come as a painful assault on him. When he begged for forgiveness at the work's climax, his voice was delicate and sweet, a characteristic that had not been present before, but was wholly expected and believable in this tormented character. In many productions, the Count is so despicable that his eventual reconciliation feels improbable. Mattei's performance made everyone remember that this Count is not simply another Don Giovanni, but a suffering man who has everything and still does not know what he really wants and needs.
As his wife was soprano Amanda Majeski in her Met debut. The singer was not scheduled to sing the opening performance, but after a casting change he was given the charge. And she handled it admirably. There were signs of nerves in both of her arias and she struggled with her ascending passages in the Act 2 trio with the Count and Susanna. But that did not cloud some otherwise fine moments. Her voice is thin and her vibrato rapid, but her phrasing was always elegant and poised, as is needed for a character such as a Countess. She maintained a certain reserve in her interpretation, allowing the Countess to have fun while flirting with Cherubino, but never to an extent that seemed beneath her status or undying faithfulness to the Count. Vocally, she was terrific in the coda of her second aria "Dove sono" and had a fire and confidence that was among her finest moments of the evening. The recapitulation of the opening theme of the same aria followed a compelling pause filled with pain and sorrow. When she chose to forgive the Count, Majeski was brilliantly committed vocally and physically. She waited a slight bit before giving her vocal response (another great dramatic stroke) and then sang with a delicacy that matched Mattei's. During the ensuing chorus she turned her back to him, adding tension to the moment and looked over at Susanna for support. When she finally made her decision to forgive him she leapt into his arms almost as if a rejuvenated teen in love. It was if the flashes of their past romance had suddenly sprung to life out of nothing. It was a triumphant debut for the soprano and she will undoubtedly get better as the run wears on.
Isabel Leonard has become a fan favorite at the Met after some terrific performances over the years. But her Cherubino might just be the best of the lot from a vocal and dramatic standpoint. She played the young boy to perfection. Her Cherubino developed into a confident flirtatious fellow who had no qualms about pulling out all the moves on the other ladies. And this offered a nice counterpoint to the Count. While Mattei's Count came off as desperate in his advances of Susanna, Leonard's Cherubino retained that youthful ardour and playfulness. Everything was a game.
But this development into a full-fledged Adonis was actually a gradual process. When he is first introduced, Cherubino is looking around a bit lost until he comes upon Susanna's room, the spitting image of a person lacking a sense of orientation or self. His flirting was similar to the desperation of the Count's and his first aria "Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio" expressed that lack of identity. Leonard extended the phrase "E se non ho chi m'oda (And I have no one to listen)," giving it longing and melancholy. It also revealed a depth of maturity in the portrayal of the character. Cherubino may be a child who lacks an understanding of who he is or what he does, but he knows one thing for certain -- he is lonely and longs to fill that void.
During the arietta that Cherubino sings to the Countess ("Voi che sapete"), Leonard started it as if it was in fact a performance. The voice was full and her hand was awkwardly outstretched toward her audience. But as Cherubino gained confidence, Leonard made a gradual dimuendo throughout the aria until the recapitulation was delivered in an intimate pianissimo phrasing that had more warmth, delicacy and power than it did when it was sung at full voice. The final image at the end of the aria was of the young boy looking deep into the eyes of the Countess. The two characters connected in a magical moment of romantic love neither might ever find in the real world conditions they endure. And from here on out, it seemed that Leonard's Cherubino gained confidence and became a sort of showman. Movements and gestures were often a bit over-the-top, but they worked in the context of the character - a boy learning to be a man and doing his utmost to play the part. By the final scene of Act 4, the suavity was on full display as Cherubini flirted with "Susanna." It was a stark contrast to the desperate wooing attempts in the first act.
John Del Carlo was a robust Bartolo and his voice had a delightfully snobby quality during his opening aria "La Vendetta." As his ally (and eventual wife), Susanne Mentzner was a fragile but hilarious Marcellina. She gave the character some youth and sassiness. Greg Fedderly was a flamboyant Don Basilio and his emphatic singing had a snakelike quality that made his character both amusing and threatening at the same time. Ying Fang was a solid Barbarina, giving her lone aria great depths of melancholy.
James Levine was a wonder to behold at the podium for his first opening night in many years. He got a rousing ovation from the get-go and never lost the audience's love and respect. And why would he? There was sheen and polish to his conducting throughout the evening. The overture whizzed with adrenaline and excitement. There was elasticity in his accompaniment that added for some rather introspective moments. There were numerous dramatic pauses and the singers were given the freedom to expand their phrases to suit their characterizations. The final ensemble was slow, but it gave off a more dreamlike quality to the proceedings and allowed the audience to savor that most sublime of passages for a bit longer. If there were ever a moment for Goethe's Faust to ask for a moment to "linger awhile," that ensemble would be it. And Levine allowed for it to be so.
Despite the protests, which will undoubtedly leave their imprint on the collective conscience, art won in the end. This "Nozze di Figaro" is a theatrical triumph, and the cast that has been assembled is as good as any that one could ask for.