United States Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro: Soloists, Cincinnati Opera, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra / Marc Piollet (conductor), Music Hall, Cincinnati, Ohio. 14.6.2019. (RDA)
Stage Director – Stephen Lawless
Scenic & Costume Designer – Leslie Travers
Lighting Designer – Thomas C. Hase
Wig & Make-up Designer – James Geier
Figaro – Andrew Wilkowske
Susanna – Janai Brugger
Count Almaviva – Joseph Lattanzi
Countess Almaviva – Susanna Phillips
Cherubino – Rihab Chaieb
Doctor Bartolo – Kevin Burdette
Marcellina – Wendy Hill
Don Basilio – Thomas J. Capobianco
Don Curzio – Martin Bakari
Barbarina – Victoria Okafor
Antonio – Samuel Smith
Beaumarchais’s anti-nobility La Folle Journée, ou Le marriage de Figaro got its author in beaucoup trouble, so that he had to leave Paris in a hurry and barely one step ahead of the French censors who were out to get him.
That did not deter Lorenzo Da Ponte, the Italian poet who was to become Mozart’s go-to librettist, from convincing the composer to ask Joseph II’s permission to greenlight Le nozze di Figaro with no interference from the Austrian censors. The opera saw the stage lights of Vienna’s Burgtheater on 1 May, 1786.
Two servants in the employ of Count Almaviva (Joseph Lattanzi) and Countess Almaviva (Susanna Phillips) are planning their wedding day: Figaro (Andrew Wilkowske), the Count’s valet and Susanna (Janai Brugger) the Countess’s chambermaid are young, in love, gainfully employed, and randy as all get out.
Trouble arises when the oversexed Count invokes an ancient custom – the droit du seigneur – which has not been in use for quite a few years, allowing the lord of the manor to have first dibs on a bride-to-marry before her nuptial night with the true bridegroom. Figaro is very upset. During the four acts that it takes to clean up the mess the philandering nobleman has caused, he is made a fool of and gets his comeuppance by being forced in front of all the household staff to make penance and beg his lady’s forgiveness on bended knee.
In the Cincinnati Opera’s superb production, the gifted production designer Leslie Travers bluntly fleshes the moral decay leading to the French Revolution—a visual environment that brings stage director Stephen Lawless’s edgy concept to life.
Aided by the mood-setting lighting of Thomas C. Hase and the period-perfect wigs and make up of James Geier, the comic tale of sexual harassment in 18th-century Seville was given fast-crumbling opulence. Likenesses of long-lost titled relatives kept falling off the walls, furniture that had seen better days fell in a heap at evening’s end, and the tree limbs that sport the Almaviva family’s faces began to engulf the palace of Aguas Frescas, along with the rotten past and the corrupt nobility.
Rather than sounding one incessantly merry note throughout the four-act opera, director Stephen Lawless gave a between-the-lines glimpse of the #MeToo movement in lace and brocade. In a chiaroscuro environment, he tapped into the tears behind the laughter, and validated the seething anger of women who dared to fight sexism more than 200 years ago: the Count is intolerably brutish and abusive and horny, and in once scene Figaro violently grabs Susanna. As a Figaro seen through a 21st-century prism, it worked beautifully.
The cast was excellent, with baritone Andrew Wilkowske a nimble and wily-as-a-fox Figaro. As Susanna, soprano Janai Brugger was utterly charming, fierce when needed, vocally splendid, and a savvy survivor. Baritone Joseph Lattanzi was note-perfect as the Count, bringing dramatic weight, ideal comic timing, and vocal authority.
In her entrance aria, ‘Porgi amor’, soprano Susanna Phillips uttered glorious sounds, and later in her poignant Act III aria ‘Dove sono’. All the while she quietly endured the Count’s abuse, until the moment when push came to shove, at which point she pushed back with strength but no loss of dignity. Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb was an endearing Cherubino, singing both her arias with impeccable Mozartian finesse. Kevin Burdette played a funny and well sung Bartolo, and mezzo-soprano Wendy Hill was a perfect Marcellina.
It was good news to have fast-rising local talent in supporting roles: Thomas J. Capobianco as Don Basilio, Martin Bakari as Don Curzio, Victoria Okafor as Barbarina and Samuel Smith as Antonio. All four sang well and acted like realistic human beings, as did the men and women of the Cincinnati Opera Chorus who showed off their singing and dancing skills in a couple of charming moments.
After a flawless overture, conductor Marc Piollet led the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra with great style, giving the singers all the room in the world to do their work and keeping the complex finales of Acts II and IV under complete control.
With The Marriage of Figaro, the Cincinnati Opera has opened its 99th season with a handsome and innovative production and a fresh-voiced cast of young singers on the brink of great careers. Herr Mozart and Signor Da Ponte would have been very happy.
Rafael de Acha