Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Mozart's Marriage of Figaro gets a cleverly comic and glamorous outfit at the LA Opera

It isn't uncommon for weddings to be fraught with preparatory issues but only an unlucky few could encounter the twists and turns that beset Figaro's marriage to his bride Susanna in Mozart's 1786 opera buffa masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro. Completing LA Opera's presentation of operas inspired by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais's Figaro trilogy (though not opening in chronological order), every ounce of the comic is cleverly extracted with nuanced performances accompanied by vocally cast evenness (sometimes a little too even) while the action is driven swiftly along throughout the story's day-long disturbances.

Roberto Tagliavini and Pretty Yende

In this glamorously detailed and intellectually considered production from 2004 by director Ian Judge, the formerly here-and-there Figaro from The Barber of Seville has settled into palace life as Count Almaviva's valet, the aristocrat he aided by facilitating the Count's marriage to Dr Bartolo's entrapped ward Rosina.

The curtain rises to reveal a large palace room in the throws of redecoration. Figaro is painting the bridal room in revolutionary blood red in what seems a reference to the political change that his servant class is making to challenge the aristocracy.

Act I's servant chamber sees the comings and goings of characters of all classes who shape the story's complexity then shifts to Countess (Rosina) Almaviva's adjacent gold leaf adorned chamber in Act II. The delineation between the classes becomes less and less obvious as the day progresses and culminates in the Count's inability to distinguish between his own wife and her maidservant Susanna (Figaro's bride) who he relentlessly pursues.

Set designer Tim Goodchild's plush, solid palette gleams under lighting designer Mark Doubleday's scant but grand lighting, much as American artist Edward Hopper's iconic 1942 work Nighthawks exudes. With Deirdre Clancy's glamorous cocktail-hour leaning costumes, the staging cleverly presents the upheaval of class without immersion in a strictly referenced period, though mid-20th century Franco Spain might be the background. Political elements fade and the characters are sharply focused in a battle of the classes and one of the sexes over its four-acts. Here men are deemed fickle but Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte reverse that judgement in their later collaborative venture in Cosi fan tutte of 1789, keeping fair the debate in the battle of the sexes. The battle continues.

A hard-working cast navigate the plot with total assurance to deliver non-stop, riveting comic entertainment while still embodying underlying emotional gravitas. Opening night singing, however, didn't always blaze like every other element of the production. A tendency to lose shape in the lower vocal ranges bemusedly plagued the leading soloists (perhaps due to dealing with acting demands) and ensembles were not always paced evenly, but I'm certain this can be improved upon as the season progresses.

In his company debut as Figaro, Roberto Tagliavini cuts a noble figure to equal his master. Whilst suave and rich in his bass-baritone and displaying smooth control between head and chest voice, just a little more power to dictate events would have been hoped for. Soprano Pretty Yende is a perfectly cheeky and playful Susanna, effervescently bright-voiced and expressive in tone. Together with Tagliavini's Figaro a convincing pact and chemistry abounds.

As a suspicious Count Almaviva, Ryan McKinny conjures a dapper despot as he moves with meerkat-like charm, sporting appealing bronzed baritone weight though needing greater projection in ensemble. Having married her love in The Barber of Seville but now languishing in a state of inertness, the forever seemingly trapped Rosina, Countess Almaviva, is elegantly performed by Guanqun Yu, displaying clever razor-sharp crescendoes and a luscious timbre. The Countess laments her loss of happiness in the heartfelt Act III aria "Dove sono i bei momenti" and Yu delivers it with requisite beauty.

Pretty Yende, Renée Rapier and Guanqun Yu

Renée Rapier trousers up to boil with hormonal adolescent fervour and her seemingly effortless boyish behaviour and voice sparkle. Doctor Bartolo is monumentally depicted by the thunderously voiced Kristinn Sigmundsson. With her juicy pearlescent mezzo-soprano, Lucy Schaufer would make you completely believe her Marcellina was a former show-girl as she frolics about in exaggeratedly ribboned splendour.

So Young Park skips and sings as Barbarina with memorable aplomb and the smaller roles of Robert Brubaker's Don Basilio and Joel Sorensen's Don Curzio are filled impressively with large, handsomely voiced entrances which just about skittle those of the leading soloists.

Keeping an easy tempo, James Conlon crafted Mozart's score with smooth, elastic beauty on opening night and demonstrated the special place the opera has in his heart (together with Verdi's Falstaff as he proudly talked of in the pre-performance talk). At times a more velocitous pace could have stirred a better result but regardless, the LA Opera Orchestra delighted with precise playing.

The audience burst into shouts of enthusiasm for seemingly everything about LA Opera's opening night of The Marriage of Figaro. By the closing performance this could very well lift the roof of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Los Angeles Music Centre.

Photos by Craig T. Mathew

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