Monday, May 9, 2022

Mozart's Divine Comedy

An emotional day yesterday as I attended my first opera since the pandemic – Seattle Opera’s production of Mozart’s timeless divine comedy, Le Nozze di Figaro. Indeed, there were times yesterday afternoon that I felt overwhelmed by the visceral effect of hearing this heavenly music.


Conductor Alevtina Ioffe led the cast of very well-balanced young voices in a performance that was beautifully sung and acted, (mostly) tastefully funny, and ultimately moving. Ioffe set a comfortably brisk reading of the overture, moulding the music into a cohesive whole but also propelling it forward, with well thought-out tempo choices throughout the performance, as well as logical tempo relationship between the different numbers within each act. It was only at the beginning of Act One’s Terzetto (“Cosa sento! Tosto andate”) that the tempo sagged slightly, somewhat hampering the tension and flow of the music. Kudos to the orchestra too, for their outstanding playing. The brief oboe line in the Countess’ Act Three aria (“Dove sono I bei momenti”) was lovingly played by oboist Ben Hausmann, although I feel that the line could have been shaped with even greater flexibility and space. Likewise, there was brilliant playing by Mark Robbins of the brief horn solo in Figaro’s Act Four aria (“Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”).


The voices were uniformly good. Other than outstanding performances of their own solo numbers, the cast really worked to blend their beautiful voices, making this genuinely an outstanding ensemble performance. Michael Samuel made for a convincing Figaro, demonstrating throughout the afternoon his uncanny comic timing – without sacrificing one iota the beauty of the music - conveying on the one hand the character’s street smart as well as being a bit of a “bonehead” at times. 


In the “trouser role” of Cherubino, Emily Fons gave truly stunning performances of the character’s two iconic arias. I felt that her overwhelmingly musical singing of the Act Two aria, “Voi che sapete”, really stopped the show. Her rendition of the notoriously difficult “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” highlighted the breathless quality of both the text and the aria.  Joshua Hopkin’s Count Almaviva had a physical presence that conveyed the sense of superiority of the character, as well as the almost self-destructive nature of his overactive libido. His “vengeance” aria in Act Three (“Vedro mentr’io sospiro”) conveyed the almost Handelian splendor of the vocal writing. 


Helen Dix conveys great dignity in her portrayal of Countess Almaviva, giving heartfelt and truly moving performances of both “Porgi, amor” in Act II and “Dove sono I bei momenti” in Act Three; her handling of the tempo and dramatic transitions in “Dove sono” was particularly deftly handled. Her voice blended magnificently with that of Anya Matanovic’s Susanna in the overwhelmingly beautiful Act Three duet (“Canzonetta sull’aria ‘Che soave zeffiretto”), a real highlight of the afternoon. Dix’s singing of the brief line in Act Four, expressing her pardoning of the Count’s dalliances, conveyed the almost Christ-like nature in her forgiveness. Those six or so measures of music, when all action is abruptly suspended, represents for me a highpoint in all of opera, perhaps even all of music. (The final trio from Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier comes a close second.)


Matanovic was the perfect Susanna, conveying the perfect combination of the character’s innocence, sassiness and wit. Her Act Four “garden aria” (“Deh vieni, non tardar”) was another instance when one held one’s breath throughout the performance.


Even the “minor” roles were expertly casted and extremely well sung. The only slight disappointment for me was the exaggerated portrayal of Don Basilio, making him even more of a caricature than Mozart had originally intended. Margaret Gawrysiak’s Marcellina was convincing in her dramatic transition from the “older woman” to loving mother. I must say that the idea of the long-lost child with a distinctive birthmark is probably one of the oldest cliches in theatre, yet Mozart’s genius with the music elevated what would have been a silly interlude into one of the most moving scenes, for me, in the entire drama. I was sorry that her Act Four aria was cut from the production, depriving her of a brief moment in the spotlight; perhaps the director felt that it hampers the flow of the drama. 


Ashley Fabian sang Barbarina’s Act Four aria (“L’ho perduta…me meschina!”) beautifully, highlighting Mozart’s uncanny dramatic and comic instinct, giving her this music of mock seriousness, filled with genuine pathos, over something as innocuous as losing a pin. I could not help but noticed the similarity of this aria’s opening melodic contour with the themes of Haydn’s Andante with Variations for piano in f minor (Hob XVII:6) as well as the opening theme of Schubert’s Fantasie for piano, four hands, in f minor, D. 940. What is even more uncanny is that all three works are in the key of f minor, and all three themes convey the same sense of gentle pathos. I could not help but wonder if Mozart was familiar with this Haydn work, or which music came first.


Stage director Peter Kazaras moved the drama along effectively, adding some clever dramatic insights along the way. In Act One and Act Three, when the peasants were presented to the Count, Kazaras had different women interact with the Count in various ways, suggesting that the lusty Count had had his way with more than a few of them, including one who was obviously with child, and motioned for the Count to notice her growing belly – a not-so-subtle way of indicating the parentage of the child. Benoit Dugardyn’s simple but effective set design, with columns forming a semicircle that gave a sense of depth, provided an effective backdrop as well as setting itself against the vibrant colours of the costumes designed by Myung Hee Cho. The set was beautifully lit by Connie Yun, with shifting colours to indicate the passing of the day. The colour of the impending dusk in Act Three was particularly striking.


While every opera of Mozart highlights different aspects of his genius, I personally believe that in Le Nozze di Figaro, the composer achieved perfection. He not only transformed Beaumarchais’ inflammatory (for its time) play into a testament to love and the sanctity of marriage, in the process giving us many insights into our all-too-fallible human nature. On top of all this is music of transcendent beauty that pierces our ears and melts our hearts, truly elevating us far above our everyday existence.









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