A Happy Marriage for Figaro

United StatesUnited States  Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Portland Opera, soloists, Ari Pelto (conductor), Stephen Lawless (director) Benoît Dugardyn (sets), Johann Stegmeir (costumes), Pat Collins (lighting designer), Robert Ainsley (harpsichordist/chorus master), Nicola Bowie (choreographer/associate director), Keller Auditorium, Portland, Oregon, 6/11/2011 (BJ)


Figaro: Daniel Mobbs
Susanna: Jennifer Aylmer
Bartolo: Kurt Link
Marcellina: Allison Swensen-Mitchell
Cherubino: Jennifer Holloway
Count Almaviva: David Pittsinger
Basilio: Jon Kolbet
Countess Almaviva: Pamela Armstrong
Antonio: Stacey Murdock
Don Curzio: Carl Halvorson
Barbarina: Lindsay Ohse

In any halfway decent production, Le nozze di Figaro cannot fail to make a huge effect. Stephen Lawless’ version, presented here on sets and costumes originally created for Glimmerglass Opera and Florida Grand Opera, is a good deal more than halfway decent. Whatever reservations I may have about this or that detail, the production did justice to almost every facet of the greatest opera ever written.

Portland Opera’s advance publicity laid most stress (as publicity is wont to do in the presumed interests of ticket sales) on what might be called the knockabout qualities of the piece. But, to his credit, general director Christopher Mattaliano noted in the program book, besides the “downright hilarious” elements of Le nozze, the “profound insight, humanity and sympathy” with which Mozart’s music portrays the characters, and work’s “deeply moving” character.

Figaro’s Wedding (a more accurate translation, and better English, than the familiar The Marriage of Figaro) is indeed two quite distinct kinds of miracle at once. Here is the epitome of artificial 18th-century comic opera, replete with intrigues suspected and real, and culminating in a night-time garden scene that outdoes all rivals with its mêlée of mistaken meanings and identities. Yet it was this same piece of theatrical clockwork that led Bernard Shaw, in the days before he exchanged music criticism for the less demanding profession of play-writing, to celebrate Mozart as “the most subtle and profound of all musical dramatists.”

For much of its length, the Lawless production duly made the most of the opera’s comic propensities, with results that were evident in the frequently audible mirth of the audience’s response. Happily, this was achieved without any damage to more serious aspects. And when in the final scene – which features, despite its secular context, the greatest sacred music Mozart ever wrote – the Count went down on his knee to beg forgiveness, only a churl could have been unmoved. We laughed, in other words, and we wept at all the right places.

There were a few matters of blocking that undermined dramatic conviction. Susanna and the Countess were too far from Figaro to make their attempts to tell him about the missing seal on Cherubino’s commission credible. The manner of the Count’s final discomfiture was obscured when the Countess appeared in the middle of the stage (not “from the other niche,” as the stage direction requires), at a spot that the Count wasn’t even looking at. There was a tendency to have characters remain on Benoît Dugardyn’s highly effective set when they had no business to be there: Bartolo’s “La vendetta” is surely a classic “exit aria,” and the stage direction certainly thinks that is what it is, but he was left to meander about the stage being ineffective while Susanna and Marcellina bitched at each other. And I found the whole business with the bed on stage, even in the last scene’s supposed garden, with characters tearing their clothes off at the drop of a hint, was inappropriate: Susanna’s sublime “Deh vieni non tardar” as a striptease – please, no! But as against these points, there were far more directorial touches that spoke of insight and indeed inspiration.

It was a good idea, when Figaro sang his “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi,” to have him shine a lantern out at the audience, leaving no doubt where a sufficient supply of “uomini incauti e sciocchi” might be found (though it was a pity Mr. Lawless got too fond of the effect and went on to overdo it, with the usual consequence of diminishing returns). It was a good idea also (shared with Chris Alexander’s production for Vancouver Opera last year) to have the erstwhile Barber of Seville practice his old craft, cutting Cherubino’s hair in the course of “Non più andrai.” And it was a particularly good idea to have the Countess sing the cruelly testing “Porgi amor” while languishing in bed: not only did this vividly illustrate the accidie the poor neglected Rosina’s sufferings have brought her to, but, more technically, it somehow defused the nervousness usually evident in this belated first appearance on stage, liberating Pamela Armstrong to fashion a truly beautiful account of the melting music.

Ah, yes: that brings us – not before time, you may think – to the music. In which regard, I am happy to say, we were blessed. A splendidly crisp yet lyrical reading of the overture showed the orchestra in fine fettle, and in the following scene conductor Ari Pelto’s gentle easing of the pulse at the words “se udir brami il resto” showed an admirably sensitive touch. My only disappointment came in the act-three sextet revealing Figaro’s parentage – reportedly, Mozart’s favorite number in the whole opera – where orchestral sonority was allowed to overpower individual vocal lines. More importantly, there was not a single eccentric tempo set by the maestro at any juncture in the work. (His rather slow pulse for the Countess’ two arias was not so much idiosyncratic as merely traditional.) Mr. Pelto is a fine Mozartean. Where, by the way, is he from? I am really fed up with supposed program “biographies” that don’t deign to divulge that information. I shouldn’t have to go home and consult reference sources (translation: Google!) to verify that he is Finnish, as the name suggests – and even then fail to find his nationality mentioned anywhere in the material offered by his management.

With the resulting strong orchestral and choral support, the warm-voiced Ms. Armstrong and her colleagues offered performances that were excellent almost without exception. Jennifer Aylmer was a sweet-toned Susanna, and Daniel Mobbs, her suitably irrepressible Figaro, revealed a baritone with a splendidly authoritative top note in “Se vuol ballare” and a clear and attractively reedy bottom register. David Pittsinger’s straightforwardly lecherous Almaviva was equally well and sensitively sung. Kurt Link, Allison Swensen-Mitchell, Jon Kolbet, Stacey Murdock, and Carl Halvorson sang and played their parts well, and Lindsay Ohse contributed a charming and characterful Barbarina. The only vocal weakness was to be found in Jennifer Holloway’s unruly vibrato and fallible intonation, but her Cherubino made up for those flaws by looking and acting the part a good deal more convincingly than is usually the case.

If you are anywhere in reach of Portland, Oregon, the last two performances of this thoroughly enjoyable Figaro (on 10 and 12 November) would be well worth your attention.

Bernard Jacobson