When San Francisco Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro opened on Friday night, you couldn’t help but notice how colour impacted its four-acts over three hours of Mozart’s intoxicating music. With it, Canadian director Michael Cavanagh takes his audience on a comic rollercoaster ride in a period that reflects the time of the opera’s late 18th century premiere in 1786 - to “the heart of a post-revolutionary America” as the program notes indicate.
|Serena Malfi as Cherubino, Michael Sumuel as Figaro,|
and Jeanine De Bique as Susanna
Of course, there’s so much to brush aside in Mozart and Da Ponte’s sublime and intelligently conceived work as part of theatre’s suspension of disbelief. Should we also be sceptical of the so-called droit du seigneur, or a lord’s right to bed a female subordinate on her wedding night? Or believe that a servant girl had the education to dictate her lady’s letter? Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte give the servant class clout in a hard-fought battle with the aristocracy. Men in authority making sexual advances on women under their authority has a ring of contemporary relevance too. But all men need to be thwarted, including the young page Cherubino whose sexual appetite is inexhaustible and who Serena Malfi - one of four principals in house debuts - does a smashing good turn in the trouser role. Mozart makes you notice.
|Michael Sumuel as Figaro and |
Jeanine De Bique as Susanna
If it seems to look confusing, the dividends come later when Susanna and the Countess trade identities to catch the Count out who, as a vexed and portly white man holding onto privilege, is given imposingly fortified baritone sturdiness from Hungarian Levente Molnár. Nothing, however, compares with the laughs that erupted when Marcellina, a hearty voiced Catherine Cook, and Don Basilio, an impressively resonant Greg Fedderly, discover that Figaro is their lost son, an impossible genetic outcome of black born from white. Colour, it turns out, plays a whopping big part in this American Figaro.
Especially so did palpable teamwork in acting and singing which ensured the briskness and intent of the drama was conveyed amply. Conductor Henrik Nánási led a sensitively drawn picture of sound below, somewhat overly guarded in the first act but lifting enormous expression from the oft-fleeting moods thereon.
As detailed as the intricate architectural drawings that screen the production, Sumuel sang with deeply crafted expressivity and authoritative vocal heft as the can-figure-it-out Figaro. As a cheeky Susanna, early in the piece De Bique occasionally lost projection in the bottom end of her sparkling soprano but her agile top range never faltered. As the Count, baritone Molnár’s comic chops stretched far, that is, until he falls to his knees in a touching gesture of shame before the wife he had betrayed. All one’s attention on Cherubino was easily given both because of Malfi’s smug and adolescent male on a randy rampage and her warm and mellifluous mezzo-soprano.
|Nicole Heaston as the Countess and Serena Malfi as Cherubino|
The creative juices of Erhard Rom (sets), Constance Hoffman (costumes) and Jane Cox (lighting) combine in a delicious blend of adaptable spaces, quirkinesses and subtlety. Cavanagh, in all the deftly directed comic footwork he creates, couldn’t have asked for a more evocative scenographic picture. Neither could he have asked for a more debatable, precariously portrayed and, when the curtain comes down, a comically winning result. Perhaps, in no small part, it’s Mozart’s music - his arias, duets and all the up to his equally balanced octets, that irons out the issues for us. The question remains, how do you want to cast this in the future?
The Marriage of Figaro
San Francisco Opera
War Memorial Opera House
Until 1st November, 2019
Production Photos: Cory Weaver