Saturday, September 27, 2014

Three Nozze and a Remarriage

Met Opening Gala 
Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro
September 22, 2014

Evvivan gli sposi!
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: I always get to the Met’s opening gala with a mix of excitement (tiaras! a new season!) and apprehension (what if it’s flavorless?). I find that the first show of the year in some way sets the tone for the rest of the season and I very much expect to be thrilled, wowed and surprised. If I get to shed some tears, all the better. This time even more so since Le Nozze di Figaro is a personal Wolfie favorite.

Lui: This year’s gala production brought us Richard Eyre’s refreshing take on a classic. While it was by no means revolutionary, it was definitely a welcome modernization of the hyper-traditional production of Nozze by Jonathan Miller in powdered wigs, tights and corsets that it replaces. And it certainly exceeded the low expectations set by the unimaginative Elisir d’amore that opened the season two years ago. Eyre moves the action of the opera up a century and a half to 1930s Seville and the shift feels natural. It presents only a few hardly perceptible disparities with the text of the libretto, unlike some of the gross discrepancies between text and action that resulted from last year’s 1950s era Falstaff, no matter how pleasant it was.

Rob Howell's jewel box sets.
Photo credit: The New York Times
Lei: The sets were not only gorgeous but also highly functional with a rotating mechanism that kept stage action fluid and seamless. This production was probably able to cut as much as thirty minutes off the show time, as transitions between acts were minimized to next to nothing. Sure, we’ve seen rotating stages before, but this one was particularly successful since it was entirely made up of a series of dark gold elaborate Moorish cylindrical towers of different heights, encasing and unifying bedrooms, salons, pantry nooks, corridors and gardens. The universe created by set designer Rob Howell felt like a sultry micro-cosmos encapsulated in a glowing jewel box.

The plot thickens.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
We were off to a good start, with an extremely cinematic overture, during which the slow rotation of the sets, very much like a camera, swooped through the main characters, introducing them in their habitat, all while James Levine and the Met orchestra made fireworks with that all too familiar Mozart score. It afforded an in medias res overview of all the players that also cleverly showed off the sets and offered nice touches to emphasize narrative points. The class divide between masters and servants and the Count’s sexual escapades were made very clear from the start. The Countess sleeps alone in her sumptuous bed while a half-naked maid rushes across the stage to get into her uniform and head back to work after a quickie with the Count (who looks very pleased with himself and his silk night robe). Meanwhile, Figaro and the rest of the staff are already busy with their various chores around the house and Antonio the drunkard gardener is, of course, already drinking. The whole comes together like a virtuosic tracking shot by an Orson Welles in his prime over the urgency of Mozart’s fiery overture. It was a brilliant introduction to a fleshful world that is already bursting at the seams with day to day activity, sensuality and life.

Susanna sets the trap.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: At this point I was ready to be blown away by Peter Mattei’s Conte Almaviva, especially after seeing him strut through the empty house like a triumphant lion in his robe. All of a sudden I began to rethink the possibilities of this count figure. Was he really a Don Giovanni in a different phase of his life? Somehow cut from the same cloth as the notorious Latin lover? I found myself reconsidering everything I knew about the character. He is usually played as something of a dirty middle aged man who seems more frustrated in his upper crust existence than driven to delicately feast on any young piece of flesh he happens upon. Knowing Mattei’s considerable smooth operator vocal abilities, I braced myself for a performance of the Conte imbued with a debonair Don Giovanni flare. But instead, despite his seductively lyrical honeyed baritone, Mattei played him with his nice guy good looks as more of a boyish ingénu. I also came to realize that the role really only showcases his voice all too rarely. It all served as a reminder that you don’t go to Le nozze di Figaro to be moved by the male roles. The emotional core of the opera lies elsewhere.  

The remarriage plot in motion.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The second half of the show finally gives the Count more to work with. Mattei lathered it on and melted us with his duettino with Susanna “Crudel! Perché finora / farmi languir così in grand Lothario fashion. Of course, in that sequence he seems to delude himself as much if not more than he manages to seduce Susanna. Which is also why a Don Giovanni-esque count does not in the end really work and why we cannot expect the wonderful Mattei to redeem the Count’s character from his fundamental foolishness. The Count is the one who ultimately gets played, and, especially in sequences like this one, he even acts against his best interests. He overhears something regarding the scheme his servants are plotting against him and, despite his best intentions, he still falls right into the trap they’ve set for him as though he doesn’t know any better. In the Count’s big Act III aria, “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro / felice un servo mio,” where he shows us just how aware he is of the class warfare being waged behind his back, Mattei came out as strong as ever, giving us glimpses of just how commanding and swooningly smooth his instrument can be. I wanted to hear more from him and very much look forward to be whisked away by his Don Giovanni later this season at the Met.

Figaro has a bone to pick with the ladies.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: Bass baritone Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro was very present and in character, playfully cocky, showcasing some extremely mobile, at times even acrobatic acting. He sang the opening aria while literally building up a bed by moving around wood bases and placing what looked like metal boards on them. Abdrazakov danced across the stage, energetically hopped around, crawled on the ground with a camera, and did very dramatic tango-like moves with Susanna in the final act, all of this while fluidly singing in his deep and smooth Italian. For some reason at times his volume drastically dropped, maybe it had something to do with the acoustics of the sets. Abdrazakov’s Figaro delivered his best performances of the evening in Act IV, particularly in his tirade against women “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi / uomini incauti e sciocchi,” that he delivered with great verve and perfect diction, really doing justice to the delicious text of this aria (think “Son streghe che incantano per farci penar / sirene che cantano per farci affogar / civette che allettano per trarci le piume”),* all while shining his flashlight on the women in the Met’s public.

Cherubino mulls over matters of the heart.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
The gentlemen were strong, but in the war of the sexes the ladies won big time, both plot-wise and in the singing department. The women stole the show, and it was truly Isabel Leonard’s night. Not only she can sing with great expressiveness, perfect Italian diction and sustained power, but also her acting was terrific. She embodied Cherubino with the physicality of a consummate theater actress: her slick short wig enhanced her beautiful features and turned her into a handsome elfin boy, she moved as an entitled horny adolescent but also wobbled convincingly on high heels when disguised as a woman, feigning to coquettishly smoke like a flapper from a long cigarette holder. 

Some crushes die hard.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Cherubino’s attempts at seducing Susanna (really the Countess in disguise) in Act IV were hilarious. In a fitted tux and confidence bolstered by booze, Leonard put on all the suave moves of the most awkward and endearing teenage boy going through puberty. Whenever she was on stage, even when not singing, I simply could not take my eyes off her since she was always doing something interesting and very character specific. As one of many examples, when Susanna dressed Cherubino up in “Venite inginocchiatevi,” Leonard kept going out of her way to turn her head to smile to the Countess, in dreamy adoration. While we saw her last year as a solid Dorabella in the Met’s Così, this rendition of Cherubino revealed Leonard to be an even more mature, confident and well-rounded artist. It is a pleasure to follow her continued evolution.

Susanna schools us.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Marlis Petersen’s Susanna grew on me over the course of the evening. Hers is the most extensive role of the opera and Petersen definitely rose to the occasion. Her singing was spot on throughout but during her rendition of “Giunse alfin il momento” and “Deh, vieni, non tardar” her voice rang out clear and strong through the house and time simply stood still. It was a magic other worldly moment that on its own made the whole evening worthwhile. One of those rare experiences that you go to opera for. While this is one of my favorite passages in the opera, Petersen’s rendition of it was completely (and ecstatically) surprising.

The wounded bird sings.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lei: I have mixed feelings about Amanda Majeski. The press made a big deal about how she got to make her Met debut on opening night when, as an understudy, she “got the call” because Marina Poplavskaya canceled for sickness (a month before the opening?) and I was honestly worried about her being up to the task. The Countess’ role is not for novices and really is the emotional core of the opera. Majeski’s “Porgi amor” was a bit too frail and tentative for my taste. In “Dove sono i bei momenti” however she was moving and her perfect balance of nostalgia for lost love and determination in getting it back made me tear up a couple of times. Her higher register was a bit wobbly though throughout and that should not happen to a Countess on the Met’s opening night (or any night).

Lui: I, on the other hand, was pleasantly surprised by her performance. Unlike other second stringers we’ve heard at the Met over the years (and just to be clear in this case she wasn’t merely an understudy but the singer scheduled to sing the second half of the run later this season), Majeski was definitely on the level and up to the role. Her “Porgi amor” was tender and delicate and moving. Though her high notes may not have soared transcendent, her sound was nevertheless that of a wounded bird, which perfectly fits with the role, especially in this second act opening aria. She was particularly moving for all of these very reasons in her act three aria of wistful reflection, “Dove sono i bei momenti.”

Lei: Last but not least, soprano Ying Fang might have had a minuscule role as Barbarina but was brilliant in it. Her light lyric soprano is young and fresh but also piercingly powerful. Fang delivered Barbarina’s Act IV opening aria “L’ho perduta! Me meschina!” with an intensity and expressiveness that were truly impressive. We discovered and appreciated her in Shostakovic’s The Nose last year at the Met (in yet another minor role) and after seeing her in this Nozze we will definitely be looking out for this singer.

Cherubino gets a make over.
Photo credit: Ken Howard
Lui: Richard Eyre’s direction was successful in conveying the core of the opera though generally not radically innovative. There were some nice touches here and there (Figaro building his wedding bed from scratch during “Se vuol ballare,” the use of a flash camera to document the Count’s escapades), but there were also some missed opportunities – why on earth in “Non più andrai” does Figaro stroll around the stage alternatively with Susanna and Cherubino? Susanna is lovely but she has absolutely nothing to do with content of the aria being sung.

Three Nozze and a Remarriage.
Photo credit: Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
Lei: Eyre’s directorial choice for the finale, however, is what brought the entire opera to a whole other level. The final spotlight falls on the Count-Countess couple affectionately kissing on a bench immediately after Mattei erupts into the most heartbreaking “Contessa perdono,” asking for his wife’s forgiveness after having been very publicly shamed for his infidelities. Such big emphasis on the reunion of the Count and Countess, very much in the manner of those old Hollywood screwball comedies of remarriage, was definitely more transformative and moving than the traditional happy ending where everybody cheers in an “all is well” fashion, in  celebration of three weddings (Figaro/Susanna, Barbarina/Cherubino and Marcellina/Don Bartolo). This Nozze’s finale struck a more mature chord and it was again very cinematic, with the light closing in on the reconciled couple leaving everybody else in the dark. Perched on the edge of the bench in the garden in Susana’s borrowed wedding dress, the countess basks in the glow of her rekindled love and the evening ends with what is effectively its fourth wedding, making for a very promising and exciting start of the new season.  

– Lui & Lei

All's well that ends (and begins) well.
Photo credit: Ken Howard

* “They are witches enchanting to torment us, / sirens singing to drown us, / owls alluring us to skin us alive.”

No comments:

Post a Comment