Saturday, July 18, 2015

The Marriage of Figaro

Nadine Sierra as the Countess; photos courtesy SF Opera
The San Francisco Opera's recent production of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro, 1786), seen at the closing Sunday afternoon performance on July 5, was brimming with problems that would have wrecked a lesser opera:

The conducting by Patrick Summers often resulted in a lack of coordination between the orchestra and the singers. My partner and I speculated that for this closing performance of the summer season much of the orchestra was made up of substitutes. Working against this theory, though, is that the lack of coordination was also apparent in the recitatives. Those were accompanied on fortepiano by Summers himself, so perhaps he was just having an off—really off—day. Whatever the reason, the audible lack of coordination affected at least one aria for almost every major character, especially in the first two acts.

The direction by Robin Guarino highlighted some narrative details, but sometimes ignored essential aspects of character and situation. The Count seemed especially under-directed: in the second act, when he bursts into his wife's bedroom suspecting her of harboring a lover, he was oddly static, often standing in place and singing, instead of striding around the room or otherwise displaying signs of agitation.

And while some minor comic moments were more pointed than in any other production I've seen, some major comic moments were flubbed. In Act I, for example, when Cherubino is trying to hide from the Count, Guarino has him creep across the entire width of the stage covered in a sheet in order to hide behind the famous chair, when there were any number of closer and safer refuges at hand. Better blocking would have placed Cherubino nearer to the chair at the Count's entrance.

John Del Carlo as Dr. Bartolo, Lisette Oropesa as Susanna, and Luca Pisaroni as the Count
The lighting by Gary Marder was puzzling, often giving little sense of the time of day. The opera's four acts take place over the morning, afternoon, evening and night of a single "crazy day," as the opera's subtitle has it. In particular, at the end of Act III the garden of the Count's chateau was pitch-dark, although the rest of the stage reflected the late-afternoon light. If this was intended to suggest why the characters will later have difficulty recognizing each other in the garden, it needed to be better coordinated with the ostensible time of day on the rest of the stage.

The sets, while handsome, sometimes did not make spatial or theatrical sense. In the first act, for example, when Figaro tells his bride-to-be Susanna that their room is ideally situated because it is located between the bedroom of the Countess and that of the Count, the door to the Count's room is missing. We see only a door to the Countess's room on an upper level at stage right, and another door on the lower level at stage left that apparently leads to the rest of the house (it's the door from which Cherubino enters, for example—he's hardly likely to have walked through the Count's chambers, since the Count is angrily searching for him). And surely the Count's room would not be situated so that he is forced to walk through his servants' bedroom and up a long flight of stairs in order to reach the room of his consort.

Guarino's direction undermined what little sense of real space there was: Later in that same act, when a crowd of servants enters Susanna's and Figaro's room, half of them come through the Countess's door. Did she really sit there while a dozen servants trooped through her boudoir? I won't even discuss the absence in the last act of pavilions in the garden, which undermines the comedy.

And yet…, despite the miscommunication between pit and stage and the directorial and design misjudgments, this Figaro was rescued by its brilliant young cast. Philippe Sly, who had previously been terrific in the SF opera productions of Mozart's Cosi fan tutte in 2013 and Handel's Partenope last fall, as Figaro became a star. His charismatic, comic and physically agile Figaro made the continuity with Beaumarchais' Barber of Seville especially apparent. But when in the garden scene we see him wounded by what he thinks is Susanna's infidelity, he revealed unsuspected depths of emotion.

Philippe Sly as Figaro and Lisette Oropesa as Susanna
His Susanna was Lisette Oropesa, who also added layers to her character's endearing charm as the performance progressed. At times in Act I she was covered by the orchestra (another issue with Summers' conducting), but by the later acts her sweet-toned soprano was clearly audible.

Nadine Sierra brought a rich, lyrical voice to the sorrowing Countess. She was also convincingly youthful—in Figaro it is only a few years after the action of Barber of Seville, which would mean that the Countess is in her mid-20s—and was recognizably an older and sadder version of Barber's spirited Rosina. Her final forgiveness scene brought tears.

Nadine Sierra as the Countess
I've rarely seen a Count who brought to the role as much dark magnetism, both physical and vocal, as Luca Pisaroni. His third-act aria "Hai già vinta la causa," where the Count moves through suspicion, anger, frustration, and dejection to vengeful resolution, was a mini-symphony of emotion.(Pisaroni was also a great Figaro in SF Opera's last production, one of my Favorites of 2010.)

With all the vocal and dramatic powerhouses onstage Angela Brower's Cherubino sometimes seemed a little overshadowed. But she was winsome and convincing as a teenaged boy buffeted by new feelings he barely understands and can't control. Guarino's direction suggested that Cherubino's attraction to the Countess was reciprocated—if not fully acknowledged—by her, foreshadowing developments in the third play of Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy, The Guilty Mother.

Utimately this production mirrored Figaro's schemes to thwart the Count: constantly threatening to slip into disaster, but in the end, a triumph.

For more on the background, characters and music of the opera, see Opera Guide 2: Le Nozze di Figaro.

Update 20 April 2017: Nadine Sierra has been named as the winner of the prestigious 2017 Richard Tucker Award. The Award is "conferred each year. . .on an American singer at the threshold of a major international career" by the Richard Tucker Music Foundation, and is accompanied by a $50,000 cash prize. Enthusiastic congratulations to Nadine Sierra; for more information, please see the New York Times, Opera News, and the Richard Tucker Music Foundation website.