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10 Oct 2015

Music and Drama Interwoven in Chicago Lyric’s new Le nozze di Figaro

The opening performance of the 2015-2016 season at Lyric Opera of Chicago was the premiere of a new production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro under the direction of Barbara Gaines and featuring the American debut of conductor Henrik Nánási.

Music and Drama Interwoven in Chicago Lyric’s new Le nozze di Figaro

A review by Salvatore Calomino


Central to this production is the humanity of Mozart’s opera in all its musical and dramatic manifestations. As a frame to the images of this production gestures representing the foibles, love, and escapades of the Count and Countess open and close the theatrical concept. Accusation and forgiveness, anger, love, jealousy, and desire are bound together in this perceptive realization of Mozart’s glorious score. The role of Figaro and his betrothed Susanna are sung by Adam Plachetka and Christiane Karg, both making debuts at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Countess and Count Almaviva are performed by Amanda Majeski and Luca Pisaroni; Cherubino and Bartolo feature debuts at Lyric Opera for Rachel Frenkel and Brindley Sherratt. Marcellina, Barbarina, and Basilio are sung by Katharine Goeldner, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi, and Keith Jameson. The roles of Antonio, Curzio, and the two peasant girls (regazze) are performed here by Bradley Smoak, Jonathan Johnson, Laura Wilde and Lindsay Metzger. Michael Black has prepared the Lyric Opera Chorus; designs for sets, costumes, and lighting are by James Noone, Susan Mickey, and Robert Wierzel.

The brisk pace of the overture allows for an acceleration of tensions so vital to this production. Mr. Nánási has the brass take appropriate emphases while maintaining taut control over the whole ensemble so that each instrumental group’s texture is consistently audible. During this well-rounded performance of the overture a scrim sheathing the entire front of the stage begins to billow outward; at the same time, Count Almaviva chases one of his conquests through the aisle of the orchestra seating, subsequently diving with her beneath the scrim just as the Countess in swift pursuit reaches the stage. In the last measures of the overture she releases the scrim to expose the Count’s indiscretion in the forthcoming marital camera of Figaro and Susanna. This humorous pantomime unleashes the myriad of adventures, emotions, and consequences to follow in the four acts of the opera proper.

During the initial duet with Figaro Ms. Karg as Susanna pairs a light vocal approach with swift movements, as in “guarda un po’” [“take a look”], so that her character projects the persona of a darting, perceptive maidservant who remains a match for the Count’s lustful maneuvers. Her voice blends well with Mr. Plachetka’s Figaro as he is gradually led to realize the dangerous proximity of their camera being positioned adjacent to the Count’s room. Here Ms. Gaines’s directorial acumen succeeds not only in overall scenic architecture but also in such simple lines as Figaro’s “Chi sona? La Contessa” [“Who is ringing? The Countess”]. Rather than being a mechanical transition from one number or scene to the next, signaling Susanna’s immediate departure, the line is uttered as a natural and unavoidable break in hurried recitative conversation. The plan of Figaro and Susanna will be finalized only later, yet the germ of cooperation has begun and Figaro’s aria, “Se vuol ballare” [“If you wish to dance”], proceeds as its logical extension. In this aria Plachetka shows his gradual reaction to the Count’s motivations: some words are sung with the grit of disapproval while others show the resonance of determination. These transitions are not a mere exercise, rather they communicate a growing self-confidence in being able to trump the Count and enjoy the game at the same time. Plachetka’s final “Si, le suonerò” [“Indeed I’ll play you the accompaniment”] shows a natural forteemphasis and satisfied resolution.

The entrance of Marcellina and Bartolo underlines further the collaborative essence behind this production. Whereas the costumes and hair-designs of Susanna and Figaro are, up to this point, colorful and stylized enhancements of eighteenth-century garb, the outfit worn by Ms. Goeldner as Marcellina is a truly outré extension of her emotionally excited personality. While Mr. Sherratt’s Bartolo swears vengeance on Figaro in his energetic and agile performance of “La vendetta,” Marcellina inspects surfaces and objects dressed in parakeet-like shades of yellow and orange with a matching feathery headdress. She wears the costume well and flounces delightedly in the subsequent duet with Susanna, “Via, resti servita,” [“Pray, pass before”] upon the latter’s return. Wardrobe and projection of personality are surely here key to presenting the youth Cherubino, whose entrance distracts Susanna from her preceding unpleasantness. As the young man with a nervous admiration for everything feminine, Ms. Frenkel’s characterization exudes energy and boundless desire in every movement. Her celebrated aria, “Non so piu” [“I no longer know”] is staged as a confession to Susanna yet with naturally forte bursts of ardor on phrases like “ai monti” [“(I speak of love) to the mountains”], as Cherubino can barely contain his frenetic behavior. With an appogiatura expressing resignation on “E se non ho chi m’oda” [“and if there is no one to hear me out”], the character retreats into self-consolation. This Cherubino’s movements and personality are enhanced by the relaxed, timeless outfit of a street youth with whom the audience can identify -- and not a costume tied specifically to courtly expectations of Mozart’s time. The fast-paced action accompanying the Count’s entrance results in a series of nicely staged concealments. Mr. Pisaroni’s authoritarian menace inspires in his household personnel both fear and the same inventiveness pledged earlier by Figaro. The Count’s attentions to Susanna are believable and revelatory: Pisaroni delivers these lines with appropriate facial expression and a physically involved agility. Basilio’s entrance prompts the Count, just as earlier Cherubino, to seek a hiding-place. Mr. Jameson performs Basilio with a simpering demeanor, his florid approach to the vocal line incorporating decoration in keeping with his flashy costume. Soon after the Count emerges in anger from hiding, Cherubino is exposed and becomes the focal point of culpability. Figaro’s reappearance with a chorus of peasants mitigates the youth’s punishment by securing Cherubino a commission in the Count’s reggimento. The aria “Non più andrai” [“No longer will you flutter”] encourages the young man to take solace in the future of military adventure. Plachetka’s exhilarating performance makes of the familiar piece a dramatic highpoint. His distinctive formulation of “molto onor” [“considerable glory”], embellishments on repetition of the title words, and singing the final line “alla gloria militar” with an unexpected rising pitch conclude the act with excitement.

A second supplementary pantomime introduces the following act in the Countess’s boudoir. Before the music begins, Susanna fusses over two domestics who have assembled -- without proper courtly touches—a cart filled with cakes and fruit. As the curtain opens and Susanna pushes the cart into the boudoir, the music to “Porgi amor” [“Grant, O Love”] begins. If anything, comparable gestures in this production’s second act establish both Susanna and her lady as full-blooded human characters, every bit a match for the Count. Ms. Majeski’s yearning line in this first aria lingers gently on soft embellishments, while the pain of suffering is expressed without doubt in the extended high pitches on “mi lascia almen morir” [“allow that I may die”]. The following strategic initiation of a “progetto” [“plan”] between Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess, with Plachetka’s decorative echo on “Le suonerò,” leads into the reentry of Cherubino. When invited to sing his recent composition, Frenkel’s performance of “Voi che sapete” [“You who well know”] suggests emotions skidding and changing seamlessly from one verse to the next with especially effective low pitches at the close. The spirit of physical attraction prompts Susanna to close the door while they change Cherubino into women’s clothing. The resulting privacy allows indeed a playful dalliance between the Countess and the youth on the center of her bed. The Count’s interruption of such “buffonerie” leads into the series of delightfully staged ensembles accelerating in confusion and surprise proceeding to the end of the act. At the moment of the Count’s admitting unwarranted jealousy to his wife, Pisaroni uses beautifully seductive phrasing in his appeal, “Rosina, inflessibile con me non sarà” [“Rosina will not be unyielding toward me”]. As an expression of the continued, unexpected turns and the disarray that ends the act, Plachetka’s Figaro is positioned prone on his side while others declare that they may not survive the day. The seeming madness comes to a head when members of each group toss fruit at their opponents in the final moments.

Both costumes and scenic design suggest a more classic simplicity in the concluding acts of the production. An arrangement of chandeliers suggests the noble court; at stage rear several classically modeled statues are posed suggestively. The introductory scene of Act III establishes Susanna as a masterful player in the deception of the Count. Karg’s touching vocal decorations are a sure enticement for the Count just as Pisaroni’s movements and facial expressions show him melting in erotic expectation. Once he realizes the deception and declares in repetition, “Hai già finta la causa” [“You have won your case”], Pisaroni shifts the Count’s persona to being an active participant. In “Vedrò mentr’ io sospiro” [“Shall I see while I sigh”] piano phrasing suggests a monologue of growing self-confidence with a snarl of disdain in reference to his valet. Rising introductory notes on “Già la speranza sola” [“Already the hope alone”], high pitches taken forte on “Quest’ anima consola” [“Console this my sole”], and a jubilant trill on “giubilar” proclaim a final resolution accompanied by a comedic gesture performed at one of the statues as the Count departs.

In the Countess’s parallel aria soon afterward Majeski’s voice draws on myriad effects to illustrate the complex personality she portrays. One hears first her satisfaction as a participant in the “progetto,” with a suspended emphasis on the first syllable; she asks herself softly “Ma che mal” [“but what harm”], yet declares forte that she has been humiliated with a dark color layered on “fatale.” In her musing on the simple, happy past Majeski’s Countess traces a delicate line over “Di dolcezza e di piacer” [“of sweetness and of pleasure”] yet returns to an introspective question on the accusatory “menzogner” [“lying”]. The lyrical repeats in the conclusion of “Dove sono” [“Where are they now?”] expand over a broad range from deeply felt low notes in “La memoria” to a polished melisma on “La mia costanza” [“my enduring faith”]. Her character departs in renewed dignity. All are then once again assembled for the dance at the close of the act in preparation for the nuptial festivities of the evening. While Pisaroni swears his desire for the “più ricca pompa” [“the most lavish pomp”], the Countess resorts knowingly to an ultimate triumphant and comic gesture.

The scene in the garden for the final act is staged in soft iridescent shades. Figaro’s aria as a comment on women, “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” [“Open your eyes”] is sung by Plachetka with seemingly endless legato, as he laments his position vis-à-vis Susanna. In her own final aria, “Deh vieni, non tardar” [“Come, do not delay”] Karg’s Susanna demonstrates a vocal highpoint for her character’s independence, while she dissembles knowingly within earshot of her fiancé. The final exposure of the Count’s infidelity leads to his denying pardon at first to those who have tricked him, until the Countess’s intercession secures forgiveness for all. Based on a final playful gesture between this production’s noble pair, their human strengths and weaknesses seem likely to be repeated. How better to celebrate the spirit of Mozart?

Salvatore Calomino

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