Posted by: operatheaterink | October 5, 2010

Review: ‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ LA Opera, Oct. 5, 2010

Unmemorable But Enjoyable.

Susanna, Figaro, Countess Almaviva. Photo by Robert Millard.

Susanna, Figaro, Countess Almaviva. Photo by Robert Millard.


By Carol Jean Delmar
Opera Theater Ink

September 30th was Plácido Domingo’s day of rest, so-to-speak. He had sung the role of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda the day before in LA Opera’s first success in what seems a very long time — Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino.” Strange how things work out sometimes. So much effort was put into LA Opera’s $31 million “Ring” last season — to elevate the status of the company worldwide — and then low-and-behold, along comes a low-budget new opera with some panache and lyricism, and voilà, LA Opera has a winner on its hands that is audience-friendly and is putting the company back on the map, and not a moment too soon.

But this is not a review of “Il Postino”: It is a review of LA Opera’s 2004 revival of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” And unfortunately, the production is rather unmemorable except that I cannot help but remember it because I saw the same version in 2006 as well.

Although the overture sets the pitch and pace for the frenetic onstage happenings to come, there was no excitement to go with the “Presto” – marked tempo at the top of the score. It was as if Plácido Domingo had to catch a flight, and he, the orchestra and his baton were just going through the motions. And as the scenes unfolded — moving from the Figaro-Susanna duet “Cinque, dieci, venti’ to Figaro’s “Se vuol ballare signor Contino,” Cherubino’s “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio,” Figaro’s “Non più andrai” and the Countess’s “Porgi, amor” — I wondered why I felt so uninvolved and so disinterested.

But the Count sure woke me up. This opera — which is based on Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ comedy, “Le Mariage de Figaro,” with a libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte — is generally set in Count Almaviva’s château in the country near Seville in the 18th century just prior to the French Revolution, thus making the class struggle between servants and the nobility a prevalent theme. At issue is “le droit du seigneur,” the right of each noble master to sleep with his servants’ brides on their wedding nights. Count Almaviva has ended such a practice, but he still intends to have his way with Susanna on the eve of her wedding to Figaro. Susanna, Figaro and the Countess do everything in their power to discourage him, aided by the shenanigans of the young page, Cherubino, and other comedic characters, including the colorful Marcellina who intends to marry Figaro herself in spite of the fact that she could be his mother, and by the way, is. After some rollicking cajoling and masquerading which serves to mix the characters up as well as the audience, the parties are matched with their rightful partners.

Although the costumes, props and sets were inconsistent with the period, the overall feel of the production was acceptable. However, some occurrences were jolting, for instance, when the Countess wore a satin negligée atop a lavish bed with a telephone beside her. Afer seeing her sexually-obsessed husband strut around the château flaunting a naked chest in his 20th-century dressing gown, I could only draw the conclusion that these two members of royalty were swingers.

That simply was not what Beaumarchais, Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte had in mind. Tampering with time and place in this opera doesn’t work, or at least, it didn’t work in this production. And neither did some of director Ian Judge’s other lunacies.

According to LA Opera’s press release, Beaumarchais’ play was “banned by Louis XVI as profoundly immoral for its criticism of the aristocracy.” The Count’s actions would have been subtle. He wouldn’t have strutted his stuff.

Then consider Cherubino, one of the first “travesti” roles to succeed youthful characters previously portrayed by castrati. Cherubino is a mezzo. He is a young testosterone-driven lad, but his costume is usually representative of the period, and he wears a tie wig. We know that he is a she. Yet in director Ian Judge’s production, he is such a convincing young lad in 18th-century breeches with a short 20th-century haircut and sideburns that we are sure that he is a he who couldn’t decide which century he lived in. All of this nonsense simply detracted from the audience’s ability to sit back and enjoy Mozart’s glorious music which was sung so conversationally that we hardly noticed it – and I am not referring to the recitatives.

There were improvements to the set and costumes in this revival. In 2006, Figaro was wearing breeches at the onset, but no stockings or buckled pumps, and his shirt wasn’t covered with a waistcoat, which made his ensemble historically inaccurate. The Figaro in 2010 looks more appropriate, yet the periods remain historically jumbled. Cherubino’s uniform is reminiscent of the attire in Franco’s Spain. The hairstyles span from period to modern. The furniture fits into any era. Think 1700s. Think the 1950s. Anything goes. This piece does not work in the timeless zone.

Renata Pokupic as Cherubino was lovely, however, with a clear lyric mezzo that endeared us to her as him, especially during “Voi che sapete.” And in spite of the fact that I didn’t approve of Bo Skovhus’s somewhat embarrassing over-the-top portrayal of Count Almaviva, he followed through with the director’s directions professionally and charismatically, although I can’t remember what he sounded like.

Martina Serafin was more Tosca than Countess Almaviva. Her “Porgi, amor” could have been so much more beautiful. Marlis Petersen, who has sung Susanna at the Salzburg Festival, showed promise in a role that was underdeveloped vocally and in characterization. She has the goods to deliver much more.

Bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, who played Seth Brundle in LA Opera’s forgettable “The Fly,” was far more appealing as Figaro, although his rich, warm tonal quality was evident when he sang Brundle in 2008. That was when he had a chance to strut his stuff. What is it these days? It appears that opera directors feel compelled to have at least one nude scene. “The Fly” had one. “Il Postino” has one. Believe me, that is not why people go to see opera — they go to hear it.

Although Okulitch shows promise, his Figaro was so youthful that I thought I was at a student production. I hope to see a little more maturity the next time around. Okulitch’s performance was uninspiring.

As for Ronnita Nicole Miller, she was miscast. Just because Miller recently graduated from the Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program doesn’t mean that she should be cast in every comprimario role on this earth to gain experience. I have heard Miller in master classes. Her voice is large and rich and serious. Seeing her play silly, giddy roles is unbecoming of her talent. She will make her San Francisco Opera début as Erda and the First Norn in Wagner’s “Ring” — roles which are far better suited for her than Marcellina.

The remaining cast members – Alessandro Guerzoni (Doctor Bartolo), Christopher Gillett (Don Basilio), Philip Cokorinos (Antonio) and Daniel Montenegro ( Don Curzio) sang their roles with comedic flair. I am looking forward to hearing more of Valentina Fleer (Barbarina).

In spite of all of the incongruities, the Act 4 garden scene gave the audience something to look forward to. The ladies were dressed in silk taffeta gowns surrounded by juniper trees with glistening stars up above, and there were fireworks. Of course, there were chandeliers hanging from the sky as well. Although this vision didn’t entirely make sense, it was a pleasant way to end an otherwise unmemorable evening.

Conductor: Plácido Domingo
Director: Ian Judge
Scenery Designer: Tim Goodchild
Costume Designer: Deirdre Clancy
Lighting Designer: Mark Doubleday

At the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion

Photo: Robert Millard

Photo: Robert Millard