If you’re new to opera, The Marriage of Figaro is usually a guaranteed good ticket. If you’ve seen several Figaros, as I have, its playful charm and tuneful music, when well conducted, rarely lets down even a jaded critic partial to contemporary pieces. Among the 10 most produced operas, the 1786 Mozart hit remains one that companies can’t resist staging over and over.
Portland Opera has staged six Figaros since 1971. The opera’s longevity and persistence might signal unimaginative programming – or a sustainable winner. This one, performed some 52 years later than PO’s first Figaro, held its own and more for three performances Oct. 28, Nov. 3 and Nov. 5 at the downtown Portland Keller Auditorium. It didn’t sell out, but the audience on Nov. 3 was extremely appreciative. The Keller seats 2,992 — a cavernous place that can muffle, bury and blur opera singers’ voices. But it didn’t this time, at least from my close-to-the-orchestra seat.
The “buffa” opera, first of three collaborations between W. Amadeus Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte – the others are Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni – has so much going for it as a comedy, and this production kept the comic elements on high. I haven’t heard so much laughter echoing off the Keller walls at a PO show for years. But the opera creatives paid attention to other important elements to make Figaro more than funny. It had top-notch singing, especially by the women leads (soprano Leela Subramaniam as Susanna, the maid, and soprano Laquita Mitchell as Countess Almaviva); knock-out new costumes by PO’s own costume designer Christine A. Richardson; an orchestra led tightly by international conductor Elizabeth Askren; and a brisk, agile presentation by Stage Director Fenlon Lamb. After all, opera means “work,” including work behind the scenes. It’s not just about the singers.
Many of the cast and production team were making their PO debuts, though we glimpsed soprano Subramaniam in this year’s Thumbprint, Mitchell in the 2006 Don Giovanni, and the hilariously flummoxed bass-baritone Richard Ollarsaba as Count Almaviva in the 2022 Carmen singing Escamillo. Not to ignore bass-baritone Jesus Vincent Murillo, who shaped Figaro, the count’s valet, into a quick-witted duplicitous energy bunny. All of the main characters were good, and the ensemble singing that geared up in the second act and rolled on until the end of the three-hour opera, was artfully staged and performed, including the Act IV nonet. Though lighthearted, whimsical and fast-moving, it was a long opera–but not as long as some Wagner pieces, thank the music gods, especially in this day of often produced shorter shows.
Figaro is as much about class and changing traditions in 18th-century Spain as it is about love – unrequited, uncontrolled, failed and seemingly unconsummated. (We do wait a long time for Susanna and Figaro to actually tie the knot, but that’s part of the fun). At the opera’s 1786 debut, the European social order was changing, with the French Revolution around the corner and traditions such as the “droit de seigneur” (the feudal lord, in this case Count Almaviva, has the right to sleep with a servant on her wedding night) being challenged. So it goes in this piece: Much of Figaro’s and Susanna’s immense energy and vivacity is spent circumventing that custom. Ultimately, the servants trick the 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?
The new costumes were designed around traditional 18th-century clothes that distinguish the privileged from the poor. The nobility wore elaborate silks in blues and blue-greens, and the comic phony-bourgeois couple of Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Tesia Kwarteng) and Bartolo (bass-baritone Matthew Burns) strutted out in clownish orange and purple costumes. A few pieces – the countess’s diaphanous blue dressing gown, a full-length voluminous hooded pink cape that the countess threw on to dupe the count into thinking she was Susanna, and the count’s peacock-colored silk shantung frock coat with gold and floral embroidery — were simply off-the-charts stunning and technically complex to construct.
Susanna, as a servant, wore a flirty flowery Williamsburg-print dress, a historically correct print of the times, and ideal for her garden forays to avoid and deceive the count. Horn dog Cherubino, the count’s page (mezzo-soprano Deepa Johnny in a pants role) had several changes of clothes because he/she was often in hiding or in disguise to ditch page responsibilities and haplessly pursue women of all ages and social stature. The chorus was dressed in neutral-toned bodices and skirts that appeared almost nun-like (we’re in Spain), varied by such details as wooden buttons and classic Spanish blackwork embroidery.
Each of the chorus characters’ costumes was slightly different from the other choristers’. “They all have backstories,” said designer Richardson, who likes to think of her costumes clothing real people with real stories. She has been creating opera, dance and theater costumes for 35 years and running Portland Opera’s costume shop since 2015.
“People think we just pull costumes out of a magical warehouse,” Richardson said in an early November interview. Not this time, though costumes are often reconfigured from previous productions, or rented. The clothing enhanced a colorful production, its vibe in between “comedy and straight,” added Richardson, who began work on the project in the spring after regular consultation with Stage Director Fenlon Lamb.
The set, owned by Arizona Opera, was a series of tall mirrored doors. Other than a slight change of furniture, the set stayed the same throughout the show. Its unfussy simplicity allowed the costumes to take center stage along with the singers. There’s always something refreshing about a new well produced Figaro, even if it’s 238 years old.