As the dimming lights turned the deep red walls of the Kennedy Center Opera House into darkness, the spiky celestial chandeliers seemed to glow with unusual brilliance, welcoming us into another season of Washington National Opera.
For season openers The Marriage of Figaro is an easy favorite, but who could have predicted that the luminosity of singing, musicianship displayed in the orchestra, and spot-on casting and acting of the ensemble would shoot off like a display of brightly colored fireworks?
Let’s start with the overture, which puts a happy smile on my face every time I hear it. Wisely, there was no busy staging overlaid so that we could simply hum along silently with the familiar tune. Conductor James Gaffigan made his WNO debut with this production, and how wonderfully he brought out the colors and mathematically-structured precision of Mozart’s score! More importantly, he set the tone for the show (adapted from a recent production at Glimmerglass Festival): this production would be positively impish and easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy fun. The back and forth interplay of instruments articulated deftly so that they became like additional characters who were entering into the chatty dialogue.
There’s nothing like a wedding day to view a family’s dysfunctional peccadilloes. Count Almaviva’s “extended family” is no exception, and he seems to have cut a swath through the pretty young women who work on his land, much to the pain and humiliation of his wife, the Countess.
At the start of the show, the Count has set his sights on renewing the ancient feudal custom of droit de seigneur to seduce his wife’s maid, Susanna, on the eve of her wedding day to his valet Figaro. He’s not the only overly testosterone-filled male. There’s young Cherubino whose raging hormones have him flinging himself on Susanna, the Countess, and just about anyone he sets eyes on. Only he is a girl, that is Cherubino in a pants role played by a soprano. Then there’s the subplot of Marcellina who made a deal sometime before with Figaro that if the money he owed her isn’t repaid, he has to marry her, all fueled by Dr. Bartolo, seeking his own revenge. If I were to suggest there are Freudian overtones in the plot twist, not to mention masterly over-tunes in duets which become trios, then quartets, right up through sextets and septets, now would that be a spoiler alert? Never mind. Well played, Mozart.
Dance is a metaphor for the whole production. Mozart has indicated this right from the get-go with Figaro singing about wanting to outfox the crafty Count in Se vuol ballare. “If you want to dance, good sir, I’ll mark the time.”
All the singers have created distinctive physical styles of movement for their characters so that the whole opera indeed moves like a complex ballet. Figaro never seems to stop bouncing from a sheer life force – putting me in mind of no other than AA Milne’s Tigger. The Countess glides languorously, swan-like, so that nothing ever seems to touch the ground. Susanna moves through the various partners thrust upon her in a kind of nimble gavotte. Cherubino swoons and slouches like a lad one moment then, in disguise, prances precariously like so many teenage girls who’ve not mastered balancing in high heels. Marcellina spins like a top, except when she and Susanna get into the most delicious cat fights, swatting at each other.
Benoit Dugardyn’s monochromatic set with its black and white checkerboard floor and painted dove gray draperies was understated yet stunning. He never let the set compete with the action or the costumes, the eye-popping work of Myung Hee Cho. Her clever use of saturated Mediterranean colors on the set proved dazzling turning the characters into music-box figures. Dugardyn amplified this idea, letting the scenes progress almost like lids and tiers opening to reveal Mozart’s gems. From the first scene’s shallow ante room, the action peeled open for the Countess’ bedroom which then pushed open further to reveal a magnificent double colonnade, the proportions of which were as pleasing as a Jeffersonian architectural masterpiece.
There are many things to commend Pete Kazaras’ stage directing but “proportion” again comes to mind to describe the strength of the production. Nothing distracted or took away from the clarity of the story telling.
The singing was thoroughly delightful and in some instances stunning. Amanda Majeski as the Countess had a distinct soprano sound that put me in mind of the German-born Austrian Gundula Janowitz, one of the most renowned singers of the 20th century. Majeski’s ability to float a line and pluck high notes from the stratosphere, inserting them effortlessly yet substantively in her vocal runs is crazy good. She seemed perfection cast as the Countess, a Pre-Raphaelite painting with her golden curls, long fingers and willowy body.
Joshua Hopkins as the Count rolled on stage with rock star sensuality, and his voice was gorgeously seductive. At the start of the second half, he enters wearing a beautiful blue brocade floor-length dressing gown and goes to sit at his desk flanked behind by the double colonnade. The moment is so picture perfect, lit by Mark McCullough, one would be forgiven if one wanted to gasp in sheer beauty. Soon thereafter, Hopkins seductively rips open the top of his garment to reveal an awesome chest of dark tangled hair. Throughout the night, the man also showcased the technical prowess of a beautiful blended voice.
closes October 2, 2016
Details and tickets
Ryan McKinney, who had just flown in from singing Wagner’s Parsifal in Bayreuth (not to mention being featured this past spring in WNO’s Ring Cycle) and made Mozart look and feel like a gambol in the park. McKinney proved his technical and interpretive ability to scale back and create something light and delightful. His confidence in the role put me at ease instantly and, when he drew Susanna on his lap in their first duet for some pre-nuptial necking, he convinced me this was a modern love story.
If McKinney surprised me in his transition from Wagner to Mozart, Elisabeth Bishop, who had played Wotan’s wife, a formidable queen of the gods, stunned me. Bishop dropped her gravitas at the stage door to play Marcellina, a particularly fussy mischief-maker. She threw herself into the choreography with energetic and comedic enthusiasm and clearly knew how to bring out the lightness of Mozart.
Lisette Oropesa may not have had the same size of voice as others on the big Kennedy Center stage, but her Susanna was effervescent and charming. In her duets, both with Figaro in Act I and gorgeously with the Countess in the second half of the production, the voices blended beautifully. More important to this audience member, she acted the part with such verisimilitude that I was rooting for her all the way.
I confess I fell in love with Aleksandra Romano as Cherubino. She has a distinct voice, clear and bell-like, even curious in some spots, and she knows how to use it to express character in the throes of emotion. When she sang to all the beautiful women in the world, her “Non so piu cosa non” was absolutely fetching. I totally believed her acting choices, portraying the awkwardness but endearing quality of late adolescent youth. I often find those pants roles pushed and unsatisfying, but Romano positively tickled me.
The piece was delightfully accessible, and when the show two days later played at the ballpark for a special HD viewing, the park erupted, the audience was with it in all the right places. Keith Jameson as the foppish Don Basilio came close to “stealing the bases,” he so grabbed the crowd’s attention. Valeriano Lanchas, who plays a lot of these buffo parts, pulls off the comedic trios and such with great comic vigor – not easy to my mind – and the audience lapped up the comedic interplay.
The two weak spots for me were the depictions of the young peasant women. Ariana Wehr had an almost wobbly vibrato, not to my taste, and didn’t match her singing with the others on stage. Mozart doesn’t give us much excitement in the way of a chorus, so not much harm done, but the director clumped the female chorus like pigeons on stage. The direction had one gimmick of schtick, and the singing was pretty pedestrian, evoking bland operatic staging and planted singers of decades ago.
Ah, but the Countess reminds us that forgiveness is all. Ultimately Mozart’s gift is his ability to draw characters of flesh and blood, whose feelings are altogether real. This ensemble has dug into that wellspring joyously. I’d say it’s a great introduction to the charmed world of Mozart and opera.
The Marriage of Figaro Composed by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart . Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte . Directed by Peter Kazaras . Conducted by James Gaffigan . Produced by Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.