|Virginie Verrez, Takaoki Onishi and Ying Fang (photo by Ken Howard)|
Le Nozze di Figaro, if not our favorite opera, is at least in the top five. We have seen it perhaps 30 times in our opera going lifetime. We have always enjoyed it but we have never thrilled to it as much as last night when Juilliard Opera presented it with the perfect cast, meaningful direction by Stephen Wadsworth, and spirited conducting by Gary Thor Wedow, who brought out every nuance of Mozart's glorious score.
Mr. Wadsworth elicited the humanity of the characters in all their fullness without ever stooping to cliché. As the entitled aristocrat Count Almaviva, baritone Takaoki Onishi created a character who was not a monster, just a man of his time in times that were changing. He showed the frustration and bewilderment of a man confronting servants unwilling to do his bidding and a wife who found a way to deal with his philandering--with the servants' help, of course. Mr. Onishi's singing is always topnotch, bursting with musicality and richly textured sound.
His nemesis Cherubino was so convincingly portrayed by mezzo-soprano Virginia Verrez that we forgot it was a travesti role. Her lustrous voice was unhampered by the demands of the character. This was a very hormonal youth ("Non so più cosa son") and his lust for the Countess was unmistakable. Anyone who has read the final entry of Beaumarchais' trilogy knows that the two of them conceived a child. But this is the first time we have ever seen the two of them making out in bed! At the end, it was obvious that he did NOT want to marry Barbarina!
That the Countess finds him irresistible was made clear by the excellent soprano Alexandra Razskazoff. We recently saw this opera at the Metropolitan Opera, in which we found the Countess bland and lacking dignity. Not so here! Ms. Razskazoff managed to show us the spunky Rosina she had been, the beaten down wife she had become, and her growth into the dignified woman in control.
As Figaro, bass-baritone Thesele Kemane gave vocal evidence of being in control of every situation. Dramatically, he showed the wit and the cleverness the role demands and needed only a touch of additional charm and humor to make his characterization complete.
Aside from the theme of shifting power structure, there is much that Beaumarchais had to say about love and its varying manifestations. Figaro and Susanna represent faithful romantic love with its accompanying fear of loss, manifested by jealousy. Soprano Ying Fang created a completely lovable and resourceful Susanna. Her bright soprano was employed successfully to support the interpretation. Her facial expressions while being pawed by the Count were priceless.
The Count and Countess of course represent love gone sour. He is a consistent philanderer and she is repairing her damaged self-esteem (What a "Dové sono"!) with the young page Cherubino. The Count's contrition at the end ("Contessa perdono") is stretched out and held back for as long as possible, leaving us in the audience thinking "Get down on your knees already and apologize!"
More surprising is the ambivalent affection between Marcellina, superbly sung and acted by undergraduate (!) mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey and Bartolo, impressively performed by bass Önay Köse. His Bartolo was not detestable but rather likeable. He too is a victim of his epoch and his grudge against the Count is understandable ("La vendetta"). This pair of performers made it believable that they had once had an intimate relationship. Perhaps he still cares for her or perhaps he is making the best of the situation when he agrees to marry her. On her part, she is a bit seductive toward him, perhaps to gain his support or perhaps she really cares for him.
One of the most astounding surprises of the evening was witnessing tenor Miles Mykkanen's creation of the role of Don Basilio. This character is a dandy, a gossip and a panderer and yet Mr, Mykkanen made him deliciously appealing. We should not have been surprised because this versatile artist always does something original.
Tenor Aaron Mor, also an undergraduate, fulfilled the requirements of the role of Don Curzio the magistrate. The scene of the court case was hilarious with each character jumping up to make his point.
Bass-baritone Tyler Zimmerman offered ample comic relief as Antonio the gardener. He conveyed bibulousness and righteous indignation very well.
Soprano Liv Redpath made a sweet Barbarina but was not given much to do dramatically.
The chorus did beautifully, coached by David Moody and the Juilliard Orchestra did justice to Mozart's melodic music.
The fact that we scarcely recognized these singers with whom we are well acquainted is tribute to the excellent wig and makeup design of Tom Watson. Camille Assaf's costume designs could not have been better. We will long remember the Count's opulent yellow dressing gown and the Countess' lavish gowns, as well as Susanna's wedding dress. The quiet colors for the rest of the cast were apropos.
The set design by Charlie Corcoran faithfully recreated a palacio outside of Seville. The servants' room was rather bare and being made ready for occupancy. The Countess' room was opulent with period furniture. David Lander's lighting was apt and unobtrusive.
We have run out of superlatives. We do believe we have seen a Nozze di Figaro against which all future ones will be measured. The production managed to be faithful to Mozart's music and Beaumarchais' drama, adding new insights to our perception of the work. And that's exactly what we want from opera!
(c) meche kroop