More than two centuries after its première, it’s nice to know womanizing, cross-dressing, and infidelity still mesh magically with thoughtful solos, declarative duets and energetic ensembles making newcomers and old hands alike, laugh, savour or cry to the foibles, melody and insights that are contained in The Marriage of Figaro. How can one ever tire of the spot-on depictions of the human condition that—of course—are about everyone else?
In director Robert B. Driver’s capable hands the Opera Company of Philadelphia has produced an engaging winner: a production where the music leads the fray and the audience willingly suspends its disbelief whether experiencing the merry comings and goings out of habit or straining at every surtitle to figure out why Cherubino (Kirstin Chávez) sings like a woman (and very capably), dresses like a man, gets disguised as a female (tears-in-your eyes funny at her “coming out”) and hides under sheets, in closets and brambles while lusting after a Countess (Mary Dunleavy, whose voice warmed and matured through every scene) whose own husband (Simone Alberghini, infusing his robust voice and hapless inanity into the role with great effect)—a Spanish grandee, no less—has the hots for his wife’s maid, Susanna (Christine Brandes, a constant pleasure) who—naturally—is engaged to Figaro (Richard Bernstein, visually and vocally a perfect fit)—himself not the epitome of faithfulness. What could be simpler?
Things don’t fair quite as successfully below the boards. Conductor Corrado Rovaris likes his Mozart fast and furious. His intrepid band dashes along with him, making nearly every turn but the stage/pit ensemble falls off the rails too often to discreetly ignore and affected phrasing (notably the oboe in Dove sono) stains the effect, leaving greatness for another occasion.
Boyd Ostroff’s set also gives some unintended anxious moments. Will the walls collapse inward with the next door slam? Will the Count’s desk slide into the wings on its own? Did Mozart’s stage hands wear denim? Oh for a corporate angel to top up the production budget so that the “look” is on par with the sound. Still, the dressings and costumes added richness and subtle reinforcement to the fun. The pastel blue drapes of the Countess’ sleeping chamber and the warm pink tassels and vest of Figaro’s wedding garb further confused or confirmed (choose your own team!) the gender-fluid relationships. More often than not, Driver managed to have everyone hold a prop that did much more than break up the stand-and-deliver arias. Notable was Figaro’s conductor’s baton, used to excellent advantage as he led the onstage chorus while the white hanky (code for surrender?) flailing music master (John Easterlin) burned and puffed. Excellent too was Susanna’s mugging on the guitar for Cherubino’s song to his/her beloved; her fingers plucked in perfect sync to the pit’s pizzicati, making this detail—like countless others—push the “I don’t see you behind your hand fan” slip readily into the “let’s believe” column.
Vocally the leads were generally secure, blending effectively in the frantic Act-ending ensembles. The musical highlight of the evening was the Act III duet (Crudel, perché finora) between Susanna and the Count. Bravo! Another gem was David Moody’s fortepiano continuo landscape—pitch-finding perfect and delightfully saucy where warranted.
The enthusiastic crowd had an evening of happiness and joy. Who doesn’t believe that two centuries hence, the wily servants will still be ruling their roosts? JWR