The Marriage of Figaro

22788809_900808640071496_1258060101835248540_nPittsburgh Opera gave the first performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro last night, and it was one of those rare occasions when a bit of magic mixed with the music in the air. The centuries’ old opera seemed to take on new life; there was a palpable, sparkling connection between the massive audience and the singers on the stage and the musicians in the orchestra pit that crackled like invisible static electricity. It was by far the best performance of the opera I’ve ever witnessed, and in many respects one of the best operatic productions I’ve seen and heard in a number of years. The cast is one of a uniform excellence rarely attainable, Conductor Antony Walker set the pace from the first note of the overture by vigorously following Mozart’s marking of presto, the scenery made effective use of the Benedum’s huge stage, and the singers were becomingly costumed and clearly well rehearsed. It’s difficult to believe that all this was a “fluke,” a “one off” – it seems much more likely that it was the brilliant result of meticulous preparation by all concerned, and that each of the remaining performances will be of the same caliber – indeed, possibly even better. The thunderous applause of last night was well deserved, and will probably inspire even better things to come.

Left to right - Count Almaviva (Christian Bowers), Cherubino (Corrie Stallings), Don Basilio (Eric Ferring), and Susanna (Joélle Harvey)
Left to right – Count Almaviva (Christian Bowers), Cherubino (Corrie Stallings), Don Basilio (Eric Ferring), and Susanna (Joélle Harvey)

Unless one escapes from the present for a few hours, and takes into consideration the age of the opera, the plot is about as politically incorrect as they come. Even in the 1780’s, the play Lorenzo Da Ponte used as the basis for his libretto, Pierre Beaumarchais’ La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (“The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro”), was banned in Vienna, and Da Ponte and Mozart had to clear several hurdles before their operatic treatment premiered there on May 1, 1786. The Marriage of Figaro picks up some years into the future from where The Barber of Seville leaves off, and covers a single “day of madness” in the lives of characters who have undergone a few considerable changes. Almaviva, the effervescent, romantic young tenor of The Barber, is now a bass-baritone Count, and a rather womanizing, conniving bully of a Count at that. The action takes place in his palace near Seville, and Rosina is now his Countess. Dr. Bartolo wants revenge against Figaro for ruining his earlier plan of marrying Rosina himself.

Having appointed Figaro the head of his servant staff, the Count now tries to take advantage of his “droit du seigneur” – the appalling right of a nobleman to take the place of a servant on his wedding night – with Figaro’s fiancee, Susanna, the Countess’ maid – all the while trying to dispense with Cherubino, a young page enamored of the Countess. He schemes to delay the civil union of his two servants, while Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess conspire to expose his plot. Thwarted at every turn, the Count retaliates by attempting to force Figaro to marry Marcellina, a woman old enough to be his mother – and just in time it comes to light that she actually is his mother! Through Figaro’s and Susanna’s manipulations, the Count comes to realize the Countess is his true love, and the story reaches a happy ending. What probably gives this tale appeal is that a “have” is out-witted and humiliated by “have-nots.” This would have been especially true at the time the opera was first produced, with the French Revolution festering on the near horizon.

Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin) laments that her husband has lost interest in her
Countess Almaviva (Danielle Pastin) laments that her husband has lost interest in her

It was apparent from the start that last night’s performance was going to be a remarkable one. Antony Walker and his brilliant orchestra dove into the music at a brisk and exhilarating pace that was maintained where appropriate and moderated throughout in accordance with the composer’s notations. The orchestra played beautifully, and James Lesniak on the continuo, with much help from the singers, accompanied the frequently tiresome stretches of recitative in a manner that made them sparkle with interest and appeal. The ensembles of the principal singers outnumber the opportunities for the chorus, but, as usual, Mark Trawka made the most of that talented group’s moments.

Left to right - Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Dr. Bartolo (Brian Kontes), and Marcellina (Leah de Gruyl)
Left to right – Susanna (Joélle Harvey), Figaro (Tyler Simpson), Dr. Bartolo (Brian Kontes), and Marcellina (Leah de Gruyl)

There wasn’t a weak link in the cast. All of the principal singers, a number of them new to Pittsburgh Opera, delivered performances that were impressive, engaging, and, in many spots, amazingly beautiful. Their acting, too, was highly entertaining. Tyler Simpson (Figaro), Joélle Harvey (Susanna), Brian Kontes (Dr. Bartolo) and Christian Bowers (Count Almaviva), all making their company debuts, proved to be a quartet of artists of the first rank, and were welcomed by an ovation that was unusually loud and long for a Pittsburgh audience. This enthusiasm, however, has been noticed more frequently in recent years, and the day may come when deserving performances see the curtain raised a second time. Had the same performance taken place in New York, these singers would have been obliged to take bows for fifteen minutes or more. The dark-voiced trio of male singers were fully up to delivering some cavernously low passages that were thoroughly musical in quality and projected well through the vast auditorium. Ms. Harvey gave a most convincing demonstration of why she has achieved such success with the role of Susanna. Her voice is limpid, pure and of great beauty.

Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)
Barbarina (Ashley Fabian)

Familiar singers were equally impressive. Danielle Pastin, as the Countess, delivered the performance that was expected – lovely in all particulars. She made a great success of her principal arias, and the famous “Letter Duet,” with Ms. Harvey, was a demonstration that the intricate art of duet singing is alive and well, as far as these sopranos are concerned. Corrie Stallings was a comedic delight as Cherubino, and the young woman’s voice proved that she belonged in such a stellar cast. Leah de Gruyl, as Marcellina (Figaro’s “long-lost” mother), was quite engaging, vocally and in action, and she could give lessons to stage actors wanting to fall realistically into dead faints. Ashley Fabian, as Barbarina, a character who makes her first appearance late in the opera, displayed a voice and stage manner well worth the wait.

Antonio (Andy Berry)
Antonio (Andy Berry)

There are two tenor roles in the opera (Don Basilio and Don Curzio), each with comparatively little to do, but with both in the hands of Eric Ferring, they took on a prominence that was out of the ordinary. So well made-up was Andy Berry, as Antonio, the aging, befuddled, inebriated gardener, that he was almost unrecognizable, but his appealing voice and acting abilities shone through unmistakably.

This is a production that shouldn’t be missed. A better one would be very hard to find, indeed. For tickets and much more, visit Pittsburgh Opera.

“The Artistic Team” for The Marriage of Figaro

Conductor, Antony Walker; Stage Director, David Paul; Set Designer, Benoit Dugardyn; Costume Designer, Myung Hee Cho; Lighting Designer, Cindy Limauro; Wig & Make-up Designer, James Geier; Assistant Conductor, Glenn Lewis; Chorus Master, Mark Trawka; Associate Coach/Pianist/Continuo, James Lesniak; Assistant Director, Frances Rabalais; Stage Manager, Cindy Knight.

David Bachman Photography