by ANGELA ALLEN
SEATTLE – At last we see a full-fledged production led by Seattle Opera’s new general director Aidan Lang. Hired 18 months ago to fill Speight Jenkins’ large shoes, Lang shows with this Marriage of Figaro that he can put together the pieces of a production with genius and charm. What a vibrant Figaro it is! Its sets, singing, timing, costumes and supra-titles make this production, which continues through January 30, as far from ho-hum as one of the 10 most often performed operas could be.
Refreshing times for the opera company, refreshing times for the Mozart favorite.
This beloved “buffa” opera, the first of three collaborations between W. Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte – the others are Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni – has so much going for it as a comedy, even when the production isn’t stellar like this one. I saw one in Dresden, Germany, this fall that was much less engaging, done up in goofy overblown costumes. But it was still OK, though the laughs paled in comparison to those the SO production drew.
It is delightful enough that servants trick nobility and everyone ends up with the right partner after three hours (plus intermission) of mix-ups, faux pas and shenanigans. We love to guffaw at the bumblers because we are a lot like them, right?
And the music, directed so well by Mozart maestro Gary Thor Wedow, is almost all in major keys, manna to the ears. Arias, duets, a nonet flow like water throughout, even if some characters sing in unison that life is horrible and the others are sure it’s going along swimmingly. Sopranos Nuccia Focile (Susanna) and Bernarda Bobra (Countess Almaviva) were agile and beguiling actors and singers. They could have been twins except for the musical differences in their parts. They led the show.
Chinese bass Shenyang (one name) sang Figaro beautifully yet a bit stiffly. He wasn’t my male performer of the evening. That honor goes to baritone Morgan Smith as pompous and ridiculous Count Almaviva. His seamless comic timing was unimpeachable, his final-act Dracula slant hilarious as he crept about trying to meet up with Susanna in his black cape and out-sized pompadour. (A “silver” cast performs the five main roles in alternate performances, but I didn’t hear them.)
At the opera’s 1786 debut, the social order was changing, with the French Revolution around the corner and traditions such as the “droit de seigneur” (the feudal lord has the right to sleep with a servant on her wedding night) being challenged. So it goes in this piece: much of Figaro and Susanna’s energy is spent circumventing this custom.
Lang portrays the late 18th century and its changing times in period clothes. But he toys with the time period. The costumes are constructed of denim, broadcloth, chambray and cotton twills (quite beautifully – you’ve never seen these non-luxe fabrics look quite this gorgeous, especially when it comes to the Count’s sleek coats. The Countess’ dressing gown (above in photo) is made of fine cotton cheesecloth). Aside from the denim, to keep things au courant, Lang and costume designer Elizabeth Whiting dress the servants in tennis shoes. The puppyish horn dog Cherubino, performed by “pants” singer Karin Mushegain, wears high-toppers. Shoes say a lot!
If I were forced to choose only one astonishing thing about the opera (other than the music), I’d pick the sets, designed by New Zealander Robin Rawstorne. He collaborated on this production with Lang, who was general director of the New Zealand Opera from 2006-2013, in New Zealand, where it was a hit in 2010. The sets are simple and spare – almost Shaker-like – and their huge sliding doors allow for multiple scenes and configurations throughout the production. Once again, agility is the controlling metaphor. The sets’ pieces fit together as well as the pieces (sets, singers, costumes) of the entire production.
A detail not often recognized: SO’s Jonathan Dean, who wrote the supra-titles, keeps them from 18th-century stodginess. The opera is sung in Italian, but the witty captions flash in updated English.
If this Figaro is an indication of what’s to come, we can look forward to an infusion of freshness and fun at SO. Certainly, Jenkins did many engaging and edgy operas (Amelia, Electra, Porgy and Bess, and of course The Ring series) in his 31-year tenure, but this Figaro was genuinely funny. We also can look forward to Lang’s first curated season, 2016-17. It includes such rarely seen operas as Count Ory and Katya Kabanova as well as the more familiar Hansel & Gretel, La Traviata and The Magic Flute.
Angela Allen lives in Portland and writes about the arts. She pursues poetry and photography and teaches creative writing in the Portland schools.
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