Monday, October 22, 2018

Uninhibited, beautifully sung and marvellous on the eye, The Marriage of Figaro opens San Diego Opera's 54th season

After verging on a shutdown back in 2014, evidence of a revitalised and well-supported San Diego Opera continues, shown by the company’s 54th season opening on Saturday night with a sophisticated and enlightening production of Mozart and Da Ponte’s The Marriage of Figaro. Premiering in 2016 at Lyric Opera of Kansas City and co-produced with Opera Philadelphia and Palm Beach Opera, director Stephen Lawless demonstrates exceptionally how this late 18th century opera buffa has no less pertinence today. Lawless enlivens the plot in an uninhibited, adult, smart-looking, vaguely period-placed setting. Altogether, it comes in sparkling, beautifully sung form.

John Moore as Count Almaviva and Caitlin Lynch as the Countess
Based on Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais’ play written in 1778, Mariage de Figaro, and controversial enough in its day for its portrayal of the servant class rising up to outsmart the aristocracy, it also brings into focus a feudal lord’s entitlement to bed female subordinates on their wedding night. Men in authority making sexual demands on women under their control? It’s hard not to notice a ring of #MeToo familiarity to it.

In Mozart and Da Ponte’s day-long account, Count Almaviva wants to exert his 'lord's right'. His servant Figaro’s bride-to-be, Susanna, is his target. An intriguing plot develops that draws in several others. Figaro’s illegitimacy turns up comic results but it’s in the Countess Almaviva, cheated on wife, that Lawless appears to highlight a small victory for women in the finale in what appears a depiction of her as Athena - amongst other things goddess of wisdom, war and justice. Forgiveness is bestowed but old ways need to change. Count Almaviva’s days seem glaringly numbered.

Sung in Italian with English surtitles in subtly balanced harmony and in combinations all the way up to a glowing octet, the cast delivered excellence in vocal standard. Smoky baritone John Moore swings between the dignified and lecherous faces of Count Almaviva with risqué, open-legged abandon, drawing  a grain of sympathy in a heartfelt and tenderly sung “Contessa perdono!" ("Countess, forgive me!"), in the closing moments.

Evan Hughes as Figaro and Sarah Shafer as Susanna
Gravelly bass-baritone Evan Hughes is resounding in voice as Figaro, able to articulate phrases with meaningfully sculptured ease and mine a wealth of riches from the lowest notes. Portraying a mix of flair, jealousy and cunning - a perfect compliment and match to Almaviva - Hughes’ Figaro amply lifts the vitality of the comedy, his shining moment coming as he steps into the audience’s frame as the house lights go up to mock women in a stinging “Aprite un po’quegli occhi” (“Open your eyes”).

Sharing excellent chemistry with both Hughes and Moore, Sarah Shafer’s bright and sweet soprano provided delicate touches to a winsome Susanna who turns on a blend of raunchiness and innocent flirtatiousness with cool charm. On opening night, in her role debut, the voice occasionally sagged in volume under the orchestra but by Act 4’s romantic aria Susanna sings to Almaviva while teasing Figaro, Shafer worked a splendid “Deh vieni, non tardar" ("Oh come, don't delay").

Backed by experience, plush and assured soprano Caitlin Lynch’s graceful Countess is a standout. In an exquisite interpretation of some of Mozart’s most poignant vocal writing, Lynch breathes the pain of Act 2’s lament concerning her husband’s infidelity, "Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro" ("Grant, love, some comfort"). Time stood still in Lynch’s heavily affecting Act 3 aria of loss, "Dove sono i bei momenti" ("Where are they, the beautiful moments").  A delightfully fluid duet followed with Shafer as the Countess dictates a letter to Susanna that sets up a tryst with the Count in "Sull'aria...che soave zeffiretto" ("On the breeze...What a gentle little zephyr"). Then, opening night’s most expressively calibrated beauty was to come in the Countess’ forgiveness in “Più docile io sono" ("I am more mild").

Susanne Mentzer, Ashraf Sewailiam, Evan Hughes and Sarah Shafer
In a pants role, mellifluous mezzo-soprano Emily Fons plays up to eye-popping disbelief young Cherubino’s randy rampage. Ashraf Sewailam’s impressively rich bass-baritone adds heft to Dr Bartolo and, although Susanne Mentzer was under the weather on opening night, her role of the Marcellina was sung comfortably and firmly side stage by soprano Julia Metzler. It even spiced up the comedy as Susanne delivered the recitatives and mimed her arias, especially so as the Marcellina reveals, even to her own startling discovery, that she is Figaro’s mother.

Leslie Travers’s set and period costume designs are marvellous on the eye. What starts as a continuous wall on which the Count’s pedigree is displayed in a sprawling family tree, a breaking apart and reimagining of an array of gorgeous settings around the Count’s palace unfold with remarkable beauty. An air of faded glory in driftwood-grey permeates the spaces and multiple panelled double doors provide copious views beyond, as well as ways for Lawless to provide entertaining entrances and exits. Thomas C. Hase’s lighting and cast shadows bring stunning relief to details in an overall visual concept that cleverly reflects the upheaval and revolution at hand.

Musically, conductor John Nelson facilitated a particularly attractive warmth to Mozart’s score while generally supporting the singers attentively. Notable demarcations in orchestral phrasing added lovely buoyancy and the San Diego Symphony took to their instruments in expert form.

It doesn’t matter how many times you see it, The Marriage of Figaro is a deceptively complex work in which something new is always unearthed, yet an amazingly approachable one that cannot but caress an opera lover with its irresistible music. If you’re able to get to San Diego by 28th October, you’ll be rewarded brilliantly with that experience.

The Marriage of Figaro
San Diego Opera
Civic Theatre
Until 28th October, 2018

Production Photos: J. Katarzyna Woronowicz Johnson

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