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Mozart’s Sublime Comic Confection

New York
Dicapo Opera Theatre
01/30/2009 -  & January 31* and February 1 2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro
Brian Ballard (Figaro), Junko Wantanabe (Susanna), Jennnifer Valle (The Countess Almaviva), Matthew Klauser (The Count Almaviva), Sara Petrocelli (Cherubino), Erika Hennings (Marcellina), Gary Ramsey (Bartolo), Paolo Buffagni (Basilio), Matthew Rzomp (Don Curzio), Julianne Park (Barbarina), Casey Molino Dunn (Antonio)
Dicapo Opera Orchestra, Samuel Bill (Conductor)
Francine Harman (Stage Director), Matt McAdon (Set Design), Angela Huff (Costume Design), Paul Hudson (Lighting Design)

(© James Martindale)

Even among the many masterpieces produced by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro stands out as exceptional. Brahms said that “every number in Figaro is for me a marvel. It is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect. Nothing like it was ever done again.”

Mozart asked Lorenzo Da Ponte to adapt Beaumarchais’ controversial play, Le Mariage de Figaro as a libretto. It was a brave choice. Because the play was widely viewed as a subversive and dangerous attack on the aristocracy, it had been banned all over Europe, including Austria. Da Ponte had to reassure the authorities that the changes he made were sufficient to make his version a harmless comedy. While Figaro’s revolutionary diatribe was removed, the basic story line remained. Mozart’s opera is still about servants who outwit their master.

The plot is extraordinarily complex. Events follow each other with dizzying rapidity until the main characters and the various strands of the plot come together in the final scene. Figaro, the Count’s valet, and Susanna, the Countess’s maid, want to marry. The Count, a serial philanderer, has designs on Susanna, and he does all he can to disrupt their wedding plans. The heartbroken Countess joins in a conspiracy with her servants. Susanna agrees to an assignation in the garden with the Count, but it is the Countess, dressed as Susanna, who keeps the appointment. When the Count’s attempted infidelity is revealed, he begs his wife’s forgiveness and all ends happily.

Cherubino, a young page (whom Kierkegaard termed a young Don Giovanni), is both a metaphorical character and a real one. As the former, he appears whenever the Count attempts a seduction. And his persona when he is with Susanna and then the Countess reflects their differing ways of experiencing love. As the latter, he is instrumental in the plot to trap and embarrass the Count.

The ancestors of the characters in Le Nozze di Figaro come from opera buffa. While Mozart retained one of its underlying themes, servants outsmarting their masters, he utterly transformed the genre. His characters are warm-blood complex creatures instead of flat stock characters. His ensembles are wonderfully complex musical embodiments (frequently in sonata form) of the drama. Developments during the ensembles drive the plot and also reveal the multi-faceted nature of the characters by virtue of their interactions with each other.

Mozart gave his characters gorgeous melodies to sing. Even mere phrases, such as the Count’s plea, “Contessa perdono,” when he is caught attempting to seduce the woman he believes to be Susanna but is actually his wife, are unforgettable in their sheer beauty and dramatic poignancy. The opera ends with a celebration of love and forgiveness.

The singers in this production were excellent both vocally and dramatically. They functioned seamlessly as a company. The ensemble singing was often ravishing in its blend of vocal colors in just the right balance. The comic and dramatic interplay were also first rate, particularly in the trio in act one, the sextet in act three and the finale. I have never heard the ensembles in Figaro performed better.

Mozart makes us wait until the second act to meet the Countess. After all the zaniness and intrigue of the first act, her exquisite aria, “Porgi amor,” conveys such dignity and pathos. Jennifer Valle was an elegant Countess Almaviva. She sang with beautiful vocal color, excellent control, and a fine legato line.

Count Almaviva is accustomed to wielding power and control. His frustration and impatience at being continually outwitted by his servants is very funny. Matthew Klauser has a fine baritone voice and excellent comic timing. When he sings of his affection for Susanna in act three, he does it with so much warmth and ardor, that we (if not she) can well believe that he does have some feeling for her that goes beyond lust.

Susanna is in many ways the central character of the opera. She develops from a clever and vivacious servant girl to a more complex and dignified young woman who, in “Deh vieni non tardar,” expresses her love for Figaro in music of ethereal beauty. Mozart gives dramatic and visual substance to this transformation when he has Susanna exchange clothes with the Countess. Junko Wantanabe as Susanna, sang with a lovely lyricism and acted with energy, vivacity, and excellent comedic skills.

Figaro initially is a bit thick, but when Susanna explains what lies behind the Count’s behavior, he erupts with anger and assumes the role of moving the drama along. Brian Ballard was a tireless Figaro, with excellent comic timing and acting skills. His voice sounded especially good in his ensemble work. He held the whole production together as a good Figaro should but many do not.

Cherubino, bubbling over with the essence of love in his act one aria, reflecting what love means to Susanna, was brilliantly sung by Sara Petrocelli. In contrast, when she sang of her love for the Countess in act two, she was all poise and dignity after she got over her initial nervousness (a clever comic touch that I had never seen before). Her acting ability and comedic skills were also first rate.

Erika Hennings and Gary Ramsay as Marcellina and Bartoli, Figaro’s long-lost parents, were marvelous singing actors, conveying just the right combination of comic malice and tender love at the rediscovery of their lost Raffaello. Ramsay fairly boiled over with delightful rage in his act one aria “La vendetta”. The other singers also acquitted themselves well.

The relatively small size of the opera house actually heightened the good points of the production. The audience was close enough to see the facial expressions and all the comedic nuances. The set was very effective with minimal means. There were no choruses and several cuts, mostly in the last act. The performance came in under three hours, but time seemed to fly by. The orchestra, ably conducted by Samuel Bill, was first rate, achieving just the right balance of effervescence and poignancy. The sound of the woodwinds was particularly lovely.

This was my first experience with a staged opera at the Dicapo Theatre, and I am looking forward to the two other productions this season, Janácek’s Sárka in February, and Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri in April.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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