An American Figaro in San Francisco — and it works

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of San Francisco Opera / Henrik Nánási (conductor), War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco. 11.10.2019. (HS)

San Francisco Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro (c) Corey Weaver


Director — Michael Cavanagh
Set designer — Erhard Rom
Costume designer — Constance Hoffman
Lighting designer — Jane Cox
Choreographer — Lawrence Pech
Chorus director — Ian Robertson


Figaro — Michael Sumuel
Susanna — Jeanine De Bique
Count Almaviva — Levente Molnár
Countess Almaviva — Nicole Heaston
Cherubino — Serena Malfi
Doctor Bartolo — James Creswell
Marcellina — Catherine Cook
Don Basilio — Greg Fedderly
Don Curzio — Brenton Ryan
Barbarina — Natalie Image
Antonio — Bojan Knežević

At San Francisco Opera’s premiere — a new Mozart Le nozze di Figaro — the young woman sitting in the next seat could hardly contain her delight. She laughed heartily at the characters’ foibles, was clearly touched by the more serious moments, and gasped at the thrills of Mozart’s endlessly glorious music.

She wasn’t alone. All around me the audience responded audibly to the twists and turns of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto as a cast of singers, most of the leads new to San Francisco Opera, brought them to life with impressive energy. Conductor Henrik Nánási, who led sensational performances of Strauss’s Elektra in 2016, struck a fine balance between lightness and appropriate weight, and infused the score with bounce and deftness, once past a headlong and disorienting rush through the overture.

A certain feistiness bubbled below the surface in baritone Michael Sumuel’s Figaro, and a riveting moment underlined one of the opera’s prime themes — overturning the master-servant relationship — when he went jaw-to-jaw with the Count, Hungarian baritone Levente Molnár. Dignity underlined soprano Nicole Heaston’s Countess, and in her first Susanna, soprano Jeanine De Bique displayed a winsome, matter-of-fact charm.

If there were no vocal performances for the ages, the cast caught Mozart’s thrust, especially in the magnificent ensembles. And if some of the details and flourishes didn’t quite register, the combination of Nánási’s pacing and instincts of the singers delivered the goods in the long sequence of duets, trios, quartets and larger ensembles in Act II. And the opera’s final scene, with its series of twists and surprises, played out flawlessly and with a naturalness that elicited the kind of focused audience reaction any actor or singer could hope for.

Individually, Sumuel was the center of attention, his lyric bass-baritone well-suited to Mozart’s score. ‘Se vuol ballare’, the Act I aria when he resolves to outwit the Count’s designs on his betrothed, was a model of elegant singing and character. ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’, the Act IV aria that bewails what he sees as the inconstancy of women, was another highlight. In every ensemble, he was a rock that kept it rolling.

Di Bique’s light soprano may have missed some of Susanna’s inner strength and smarts, but her voice intertwined sublimely with Heaston’s in the famous Act III ‘Canzonetta sull’aria’, and in Act IV she delivered a ‘Deh vieni non tardar’ lovely enough to understand how it could tease Figaro as much as it does. Heaston’s ‘Dove sono’ in Act III displayed her ability with both power and silvery pianissimo, and convey the character’s distress while making beautiful sounds, all the while standing with dignity.

As the Count, Molnár deployed a solid baritone but little nuance. He played the character more like Baron Ochs than a man ultimately worthy of the Countess’s forgiveness. Missing was any remnant of the young nobleman who convinced Rosina to marry him even before she knew he had a title. Much better was mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi. Her insouciant Cherubino, arriving clad in pink finery, thinks he can charm any female in the house, even when evidence suggests otherwise. In Act I, ‘No so più’ was breathless, sleek, and perfect for the character. In all her scenes, Malfi added texture and depth.

Mezzo Catherine Cook’s Marcellina was a keeper, with elegant singing that made the character more than the elderly clown we often see. Tenor Brenton Ryan, who recently stood out as the Novice in Billy Budd, made the most of his short turn as Don Curzio, the judge called upon to decide whether Figaro would have to marry Marcellina. Soprano Natalie Image (currently with an Adler Fellowship) charmed as Barbarina, Cherubino’s actual girlfriend.

The lead-up to this premiere emphasized that this is a three-year project, linking the three Mozart/Da Ponte operas with related stagings. Figaro is the first, with Così fan tutte and Don Giovanni to follow in the next two seasons. It’s not all that unusual an idea. In the late 1980s, Peter Sellars’s modern settings for the Salzburg Festival were memorable. More recently the Los Angeles Philharmonic and conductor Gustavo Dudamel tied the three operas together with sets by three different architects.

Architecture plays a central role here, too, directed by Michael Cavanagh (who also staged worthy new productions here of John Adams’s Nixon in China in 2012 and Carlyle Floyd’s Susannah in 2014). As he lays it out in a Director’s Note, Figaro takes place in a large home nearing completion in post-Revolutionary America, suggesting new beginnings as the characters sort out their roles in society. The same house becomes a country club for Così, set in the 1930s, and Don Giovanni finds the structure crumbling in a 21st-century dystopia as society collapses.

In Erhard Rom’s Figaro sets, projected sketches of the neo-Classical house morph into architectural drawings during the overture. Over the course of the opera we see the finishes come together over remnants of the drawings, giving members of the chorus things to do to keep busy, as workmen mount deer and bison heads, and bring household items from room to room. Walls with doors often dropped from the flies in mid-aria or ensemble so that scenery could change without pause. This allowed a tour of various rooms in the house, including a kitchen and drawing rooms not in the original libretto. Clever as this is, it’s a bit disconcerting for walls to come floating down in scene after scene — even if their presence helped project the lighter voices.

Add in Cavanagh’s propensity to incorporate a lot of physical business, usually timing them to Mozart’s riffs, and there was a lot going on that had little to do with the main points. None of this got in the way of the music or the drama, however.

The only time the ‘American’ theme rose to the top was a brief moment at the end of Act I, when Figaro and the chorus send Cherubino off to the army with the jaunty march, ‘Non più andrai’. Figaro turns over a couple of wooden buckets to make drums for him and Cherubino, Susanna picks up a fife, and two servants unfurl a 13-star American flag in poses that called to mind Willard’s ‘Spirit of ’76’ painting.

That painting has become the photographic calling card of this staging — clever, even funny if you’re not expecting it, but ultimately, only reminding us of the time and place. More important will be how well the ‘American’ theme plays out next two installments.

Harvey Steiman

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