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Mozart’s Mischievous Masterpiece

New York
The Metropolitan Opera
09/22/2009 -  & September 26, October 1, 5, 9, November 23, 27, 30, December 4, 8, 12*, 2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492
Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Danielle de Niese (Susanna), Annette Dasch (Countess Almaviva), Ludovic Tézier (Count Almaviva), Isabel Leonard (Cherubino), Ann Murray (Marcellina), John Del Carlo (Dr. Bartolo), Greg Fedderly (Don Basilio), Tony Stevenson (Don Curzio), Ashley Emerson (Barbarina), Patrick Carfizzi (Antonio), Joyce El-Khoury (First Bridesmaid), Jennifer Johnson (Second Bridesmaid)
Metropolitan Opera Chorus, Donald Palumbo (Chorus Master), Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Fabio Luisi (Conductor)
Jonathan Miller (Production), Peter Davison (Set Designer), James Acheson (Costume Designer), Mark McCullough (Lighting Designer), Terry John Bates (Choreographer), Gregory Keller (Stage Director)

D. De Niese & I. Leonard (© Marty Sohl)

It’s musical magic – energetic and ebullient yet achingly profound. In the 223 years since the rather unsuccessful premiere of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, it has come to be universally celebrated. One of its greatest admirers, Johannes Brahms said that “every number is for me a marvel. It is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect. Nothing like it was ever done again.”

At Mozart’s request, his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte adapted Beaumarchais’ controversial play, Le Mariage de Figaro It was a rather brave choice. Because the play was widely viewed as a subversive and dangerous attack on the aristocracy, it had been banned in Austria and throughout Europe. Da Ponte carefully negotiated this political minefield, removing Beaumarchais’ most revolutionary bits, but the libretto remained a story about two charming servants, soon to be newlyweds, Figaro and Susanna, who outwit their master, the lecherous Count Almaviva. The Count has designs on Susanna. His desires are thwarted through a complicated plot involving his wife and the servants. At the end of the opera (in a sublime ode to forgiveness), he seems to be sincere about mending his wayward ways.

Despite its revolutionary antecedents, this opera’s true subject is the many faces of love, with all of its hopes and disappointments. It’s fitting that one of the highlights of the evening was the performance of Isabel Leonard as Cherubino, the young page who is besotted with the Countess. Leonard has made something of a specialty of the role, having performed it in Santa Fe and in Munich. At the Met, she gave an incandescent performance as a teenager in the throes of adolescent lust and longing. Cherubino 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 real boy, Cherubino is instrumental in the plot concocted by Susanna and the Countess to trap and embarrass the Count. In both of her arias, “Non so piu” and “Voi che sapete”, Leonard uses her marvelous mellow voice and acting ability to portray this charming, and perpetually flustered youth.

This production, by Jonathan Miller, premiered at the Met in 1998 with an extraordinary cast – Bryn Terfel as Figaro, Cecilia Bartoli as Susanna, Renée Fleming as the Countess, Dwayne Croft as the Count, Susanne Mentzer as Cherubino and, in her Met debut, a vivacious nineteen year-old soprano, Danielle De Niese as Barbarina, the gardener Antonio’s daughter. Ten years later, De Niese has returned to the production as Susanna. She delivered a lovely portrayal (vocally and dramatically) of the most fully-realized of all of Mozart’s psychologically complex women. We could truly see and hear Susanna as fun and funny, yet knowing and with a dignity of character and utterance that is, for a servant, far beyond her worldly station. The new stage director, Gregory Keller, took full advantage of De Niese’s skill as a comic actress. Yet, if I have one major caveat about this revival, it is that the broadly comic aspects that are, to be sure, integral to the opera, are over-emphasized at the expense of its profound core. Le Nozze is more than a comedy; it’s a meditation on love.

This interpretative shift is most noticeable in the performances of Luca Pisaroni and Annette Dasch, particularly when compared with those of Bryn Terfel and Renée Fleming. For Pisaroni (as for Terfel before him) Figaro has become a signature role. And he has made a name for himself as a Mozartean, singing various roles throughout Europe. I had never heard him before, and I am sorry to say I was somewhat disappointed. Certainly not with his stage presence which was excellent. Pisaroni’s Figaro was a handsome fellow, bustling about the stage, with a lithe and, at times, almost acrobatic presence. But his powerful and flexible voice lacked vocal beauty and, more critically in a way, his portrayal lacked the subversive undercurrent, the anger simmering beneath the fun. These missing elements were especially noticeable in Figaro’s “Non più andrai.”

Ludovic Tézier was a marvelously malevolent count. He has a rich, dark, beautifully colored voice and a sensuous manner. His acting was excellent (although, the director’s concept did give him a few more befuddled bits than I would have liked). He conveyed Almaviva’s pride and disdain, but he also showed excellent comic timing. His rage aria, “Vedro mentr’io sospiro” was wonderfully sung. The duet with De Niese which preceded it, revealed (as it should) deeper feelings for Susanna beyond mere lust. Unfortunately, there were some coordination problems with the pit.

In her Met debut, Annette Dasch gave a vocally uneven performance as the Countess. “Porgi amor” had some intonation problems, but the middle range of her voice is richly colored and very attractive. “Dové sono” was better from a strictly musical point of view, but it lacked the elegance and dignity that is intrinsic to the character of the Countess and to her social station. Dasch played the Countess far too much for laughs but, again, her portrayal was likely hampered by the concept of the stage director. Renée Fleming, the Countess in the original production, delivered a much more compelling portrayal, fully expressive of the character’s nobility of soul as well as station.

John Del Carlo delivered an excellent portrayal of Bartolo, a blundering buffoon who turns out to be Figaro’s long lost father. He is a fine comic actor. I did find, however, that his rage aria, “La vendetta,” Mozart’s hilarious send-up of the formulaic, single affekt opera seria aria, was a bit lacking in rage. But, again, this would be consistent with the apparent interpretation of the stage director.

Greg Fedderly’s Liberace-like Don Basilio was marvelously malign. And Ann Murray’s Marcellina was both funny and touching. The Met orchestra, under conductor Fabio Luisi, delivered an account of the music that was full of life and energy. Mozart’s gorgeous and eloquent writing for woodwinds shimmered and glowed. Mr. Luisi is a superb conductor and I do hope we will see much more of him at the Met.

Arlene Judith Klotzko



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