Arts & Events

A Spirited MARRIAGE OF FIGARO at San Francisco Opera

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Tuesday July 07, 2015 - 11:22:00 AM

The first of three extraordinary Mozart and Da Ponte collaborations, Le Nozze di Figaro premiered at Vienna’s Burgtheater on May 1, 1786, with Mozart himself conducting. Based on the 1778 drama Le Mariage de Figaro by French playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Mozart’s opera was politically suspect from the start. Emperor Joseph considered it “a bad play,” and he bemoaned the fact that his own sister, Marie Antoinette, was “beginning to be afraid of her own people.” Nonetheless, Joseph gave permission for the opera to be staged. We should note that Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, set to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte, fore-shadows the French Revolution of 1789 by dramatizing a revolution already taking place in the household of a fictitious aristocratic, Count Almaviva. In the course of this opera, Count Almaviva’s servants – Figaro and Susanna – repeatedly get the better of him, outwitting him at every turn, while achieving the moral high ground over the Count’s insidious intrigues.  

In this San Francisco Opera production of Le Nozze di Figaro, the orchestra was led by principal guest conductor Patrick Summers. As the overture begins, the audience is alerted to a new tone. The opening bars begin with a low, conspiratorial grumbling in the strings and bassoons, a foreshadowing of epochal changes to come, initiated from below. Then, when the curtain rises, we see Figaro, here sung by bass-baritone Philippe Sly, measuring the floor to see where he and Susanna will place their marriage bed. It is the day of their wedding; and this bed, as it turns out, will be the contested site and fulcrum of the opera, for Count Almaviva has of late been neglecting his wife and has eyes for his servant Susanna. When Susanna, here beautifully sung by soprano Listette Oropesa, hints to Figaro of the Count’s un-welcome attentions, Figaro catches her sinister point and launches an aria of barely controlled anger, “Se vuol ballare “ in which he addresses the absent Count in the insolent diminutive as “signor Contino.” “If you want to dance, little Count,” sings Figaro in minuet rhythms, “you’ll dance to the tune I play.” 

Here, in a few bars of music, Mozart and Da Ponte have encapsulated the plot of the opera. At stake is the marriage bed of Figaro and Susanna. Count Almaviva has, under pressure, renounced the old feudal droit du seigneur allowing him to spend the first night with any of his subject women who marries; but the Count still hopes to seduce Susanna. The young couple of Figaro and Susanna need to stay in the Count’s good graces while keeping him at bay. Cunning, not force, will be their weapon. As Figaro, Philippe Sly offered a vigorous performance, complete with a bit of extraneous clowning after he discovers that Marcellina is his long-lost mother. Sly was particularly effective in the Act IV aria, ”Aprite un po’ quelgi occhi“ (“Open your eyes”), in which he warns men about the deceitful ways of women. Susanna was sung by soprano Lisette Oropesa, who first caught my attention in her brilliant debut here in 2011 as Romilda in Handel’s Xerxes. Oropesa has a bright, clearly focused voice and a vivacious demeanor. As Susanna, Oropoesa was a true delight.  

The only disappointment in this cast was mezzo-soprano Angela Brower, who took over the trousers role of Cherubino from Kate Lindsey for the final two performances of this opera. Brower failed to infuse Cherubino’s two arias with the breathless wonderment of a young man discovering his own libidinal energy for the first time. Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was a very convincing Count Almaviva. His singing was robust throughout, and his acting was spot-on. As the Countess, soprano Nadine Sierra cut a sympathetic figure, singing and acting gracefully throughout. Particularly moving was her Act III aria, “Dove sono?” (“Where are those happy moments?”), in which she longs for the days when she and the Count were happy together. Midway through this poignant aria, the Countess suddenly musters the courage to hope for better times to come, and this is indeed the turning point of the opera. Mozart’s music seizes on hope and, in the allegro section of this aria, gives it sublime expression. There is an exhilarating rise from a C-major arpeggio to a high A, followed by a ravishing concluding trill.  

The action in this opera is swift-moving. In fact, it never stops until that moment, late in Act IV, when Susanna sings her first and only aria, ”Deh! vieni, non tardar” (“May it come quickly”). Here, just before the opera’s final nighttime scene in the garden -- with its deceptions, recognitions, and reconciliations -- Susanna briefly pauses to sing of the true joys of love that will soon be hers. Beautifully sung by Lisette Oropesa, Susanna knows, of course, that she will be overheard and mis-understood by Figaro, who, hiding in the bushes, has begun to doubt Susanna’s fidelity. She sings partly to tease and baffle her beloved Figaro, who thinks her words refer to an assignation with the Count. But because we the audience are better informed than Figaro about the tricks to be played on the Count, we under-stand that Susanna’s aria has a deeper, truer meaning wherein she sings of the joys to come in her marriage with Figaro.  

Finally, through all its twists and turns, the garden scene brings about the humiliation of the Count, who humbly asks for pardon from his wife. She graciously forgives him, bringing the opera to a happy ending. In this opera’s secondary roles, veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook was a superb Marcellina; tenor Greg Fedderly was a sympathetic Don Basilio; bass-baritone John Del Carlo was a robust Dr. Bartolo; bass Bojan Knežević was an over-the-top wine-bibbing Antonio; tenor John Easterlin was a bemused Don Curzio; and, finally, soprano Maria Valdes was a lively Barbarina.