One of the most beloved productions, The Marriage of Figaro as directed by Jonathan Miller, returned to the Metropolitan Opera stage for the 2009-2010 season. While Miller has been known to go off on conceptual journeys to highlight his interpretations, his Marriage of Figaro is just about perfect, especially coupled with Anthony Sher’s brilliant The Barber of Seville.
These masterpieces are both based on the plays of Beaumarchais. The Barber of Seville was used by Rossini to make a very light-hearted romp of an opera. The Marriage of Figaro was a perfect vehicle for Mozart to examine the complexities of marriage, relationships, infidelity, infatuation, and long-lasting commitment, all couched in a comic framework set up by the extraordinary Lorenzo Da Ponte. Da Ponte and Mozart were a match made in opera heaven, sharing a similar rebellious spirit and a desire to scandalize. The results were some of Mozart’s greatest operatic efforts.
The Marriage of Figaro finds our hero Figaro settling down to marry his long-time love Susanna. Susanna is maidservant to the Countess Almaviva, whose husband, the Count, just can’t seem to remain committed to his loving and suffering wife. With the help of the young page Cherubino, they manage to show the Count the errors of his ways. Along the way, Figaro and Susanna go through their own insecurities before marriage, and Cherubino finds a suitable girl instead of falling for every woman in sight.
What is particularly brilliant about the score is the way Mozart is able to mirror the complexities of the plot. The music is lush and gorgeous but just underneath are dark undertones that threaten to upset the plot and all the loving couples. Mozart goes from solo arias, through duets, trios, sextets, septets, and finally has nine people onstage singing their feelings about love; and finally they sing in a united message that celebrates love.
The success of this piece depends, of course, on the director and the singers. Miller has placed the action against rather open but towering sets (designer Peter Davison) that hold lots of interest, yet because of the neutral color, don’t detract from the singers. The costumes, gloriously designed by James Acheson, help characterize as well as highlight the various characters.
The cast for the Oct. 5th performance was impeccable. Figaro was the richly voiced John Relyea. The Countess was Emma Bell and the Count was Bo Skovhus, both of whose voices were in top form. Figaro may be the title character but it is the Count and Countess who carry the piece and where the ultimate success must lie. The Susanna of Danielle de Niese in her debut in the role was funny; her acting was very nuanced, going from flirtation to fear, to jealousy to playfulness. I especially loved the Cherubino of Isabel Leonard, who not only has a lovely voice but also made the role her own despite the shadow of the late great Federica von Stade who owned the role from 1972 to 1992. Because of the illness of Maestro James Levine, Dan Ettinger was on hand to lead the spirited orchestra through their paces with great skill and enjoyment.
The Marriage of Figaro will play three more performances in November and three in December, all at the Metropolitan Opera. On a personal note I would like to add that I saw the HD showing of Tosca and that I have never seen a better sung production of that opera, and look forward to a CD or DVD.