09 August 2013

Santa Fe Opera 2013: ‘The Marriage of Figaro’

Family portrait: Susanna (Oropesa), Figaro (Nelson),
Marcellina (Mentzer), and Bartolo (Travis).
This and all photos by Ken Howard, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.

Santa Fe Opera’s revival of Jonathan Kent’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, from 2008, is a perfect little jewel. Now in the sure hands of Bruce Donnell, the staging tells the story straight but not hyper-realistically: we see this most clearly in the set designs, by Paul Brown, which use a span of wall and a few items of furniture (naturally including an armchair in Act I) to suggest the location. Always in the background, we see a sort of meadow of flowers, periodically picked or replenished by silent lackeys. The most furnished, literally depicted setting is the Countess’ bedroom, and yet it’s suitably intimate, not Zeffirellian, in tastefully subdued colors.

The result is that the audience concentrates on the details of the relationships among the characters — which is precisely what Donnell and his cast of sensational singing actors have done. With John Nelson offering sensitive guidance from the orchestra, this is one of the most completely satisfying Figaros I’ve seen.

The two singers with whose work I’m most familiar are Susanne Mentzer (as Marcellina) and Daniel Okulitch (as the Count). Both have sung other roles in this opera many times: she’s a renowned Cherubino, and he’s a widely traveled Figaro. This experience may have lent extra insight into the characters they’re singing now — role debuts for both — and they’re gifted artists to begin with. But nothing could have prepared me for the delights they delivered in last night’s performance.

Compromising situations: Cherubino (Fons) spies
as the Count (Okulitch) tries to win over Susanna (Oropesa).

Mentzer is absolutely adorable, dancing with pleasure as she looks forward to marrying Figaro, and perfectly content with her consolation prize, the decidedly less enthusiastic Bartolo (Dale Travis). Her Marcellina is almost — dare I say it — girlish, and her motives are so clear and so understandable that we wind up sympathizing with her. That’s something I never quite expected to do in this or any Figaro. Her singing is warm and even, and she really whetted my appetite for her forthcoming album of songs by Carlisle Floyd.

I sat through the entire evening thinking that this was Okulitch’s 997th performance as the Count, rather than his fifth. He has mastered the aristocratic refinement so necessary to this character and so seldom seen, and he conveys menace without crudity or violence. This Count has terrible attitudes toward women, yes, but he is (or tries to be) a stylish seducer, not a brutal rapist; the singer who plays him must always show us some traces of the man with whom Rosina once fell in love. Okulitch did this brilliantly, with such scrupulous attention to the text that it seemed as though he were performing a straight play — except that he was singing all the while, in that suave, supple, yet mighty voice.

Smooth operator: Okulitch as the Count.

The rest of the cast comprises singers with whom I’m less familiar or whose work I didn’t know at all before last night. They’re marvelous individually and as an ensemble. Emily Fons is perhaps the most effortlessly boyish Cherubino I’ve seen — and she’d better be at the top of her game when so many of us in the audience remember Mentzer in this role. Lisette Oropesa (who shares Madeline Kahn’s birthday) sings Susanna with sweet vibrance and spunky stage presence. I admired Oropesa in The Enchanted Island at the Met two seasons ago, and here, with superior dramatic material, she’s winning.

Zachary Nelson incarnates Figaro with just the right amount of physical verve: he knows when to move and when to be still. (Another rare gift, especially in this role.) He delivers his music with abundantly virile tone, and he created a grounded character, a regular guy who just happens to be the smartest person onstage, give or take Susanna. Best of all was the genuine rapport among Nelson, Oropesa, and Fons: I really had no trouble believing that these people had known each other for years, which in turn makes the entire story more credible and profound.

Master, maid, and minion: Okulitch, Oropesa, and Jameson.

Travis looks like a picture-book illustration of Bartolo, and while he may have lost a little sympathy for resisting the irresistible Marcellina, he was hardly the caricature one so often sees in this role — a much nicer guy than the bully in The Barber of Seville. Keith Jameson’s Basilio is the rare music master who doesn’t act as if he’s dropped in from some other opera entirely; perfectly matching the comedic style of this production, he sings with the clarity and appeal I’ve come to expect from him.

Soprano Susana Phillips’ performance helped to show what was right about John Nelson’s conducting. Her big, creamy instrument has a natural plangency that works well for the character, and together she and Nelson developed a flexible approach that permitted her to ornament and stretch out lines and to drop into the softest possible singing as circumstances required in “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono,” with spellbinding results in both arias. Depressed as the poor Countess is, Phillips gave plenty of indication that she’s the same Rosina who fooled Bartolo in Barber — and who admits to her affair with Cherubino in La Mère coupable.

Susanna Phillips as the Countess.

In most regards, this was a straightforward production of a well-known work. Nothing groundbreaking. Comedy derived from character, situation, and expression, rather than from exaggeration, and political and psychological points were made without recourse to overwrought concepts and underlining. It’s clear that everyone concerned lavished exceptional care on this production, and by getting the little stuff right, they got just about everything right.

God is in the details, they say, and on the strength of this performance, I’d say that Mozart is, too.

Fun and games: Fons and Oropesa.

The Marriage of Figaro continues at Santa Fe Opera through August 23. For tickets and more information, click here.

For information about Okulitch’s recital album of new American art songs, and for updates on Mentzer’s forthcoming Carlisle Floyd album, click here.

1 comment:

Anne said...

In these later years we are often extolled to

"Think out side the box"

Which over time has seem to come to mean

" Pull it out of your ass"

You know, there's alot to be said for thinking and bring to fruition INSIDE the Mozart box. It's refreshing

Greatly enjoying your reviews , thank you .