What is it about The Marriage of Figaro? Its timeless themes (class relations, lust, friendship and a healthy dose of adultery) are entrenched in plot points that can only be understood in an 18th-century context, which limits the possibility of updates and adaptations. (How would one explain the droit du seigneur custom if it were set in present-day Brooklyn?) Though Figaro shows its age—its story outdated and almost cringe-worthy if you think too hard about it—it does so in such a pleasing and innocent way that adaptations are not necessary to fill seats, appeal to millennials or make the show “accessible.”
This timelessness so often referred to in popular, humanistic operas like Figaro can work both for and against the piece. Period is often set in costume and set design, the most malleable aspects of theatre. Classic works are often subjected to comically inappropriate updates, trite traditionalism, or (perhaps the trickiest of all) some mash-up of the two. The aim of such experiments is generally to increase the audience’s identification with the characters while maintaining a gestalt, but the result is generally awkward, and sometimes utterly incoherent and distracting.
Seattle Opera’s Figaro gets it right. (Though perhaps it may be more appropriate to say that New Zealand Opera’s Figaro got it right; the production was brought stateside by Seattle Opera’s new General Director Aidan Lang.) This interpretation nods to its 18th-century conception through traditional costume silhouettes, all waistcoats and hoop skirts–and then promptly urges you to look closer, noticing the all-denim color palette and the all-too-recognizable shoes. (Cherubino wears Chucks, while the ladies favor Toms espadrilles.) The fabulously innovative set design mimics the costumes’ swirl of period and modern; the Almaviva palace’s white walls, warm woods, and clean lines reminds one more of a modern-day Danish inspiration board than the florid Baroque backdrop so often created to accompany a Mozart score.
The set’s clean aesthetic is only the start. The cross-sectioned palace, with its moving walls and floors, quickly emerges to be just as much a storyteller as the recitative, making the characters’ eavesdropping and trickery all too obvious. In the creation of its various rooms, it also lends a subtle gloss to the class relations of Mozart’s work. The Countess’s chamber extends across the entire stage, with a gorgeous modern circular window and ceiling-high latticed doors; Figaro and Susanna’s room-to-be, on the other hand, is walled off claustrophobically on either side and can barely accommodate their bare bedframe, let alone the paces that Figaro counts in their opening duet (“Cinque, dieci, venti”).
Figaro’s hilarious labyrinth of a plot demands singers whose stage presence and acting chops are just as big as their vocal prowess, and Seattle Opera’s cast largely did not disappoint. Chinese bass-baritone Shenyang delivered a lovely basso buffo as Figaro, his rich controlled sound balanced with carefully meted energy and tenderly caressed consonants. His enthusiastic acting could be interpreted as over-the-top, but I thought it was perfectly appropriate to the role. Morgan Smith’s Count Almaviva was deliciously sleazy and cheekily physical, and though his performance in the first act seemed vocally unenergetic, his resonance and verve grew in expectation of the Act II bedroom finale. Bernardo Bobro embodied the emotional exhaustion of a Countess scorned with a lovely first aria (“Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro”), somehow maintaining a certain sort of vibrancy throughout the show despite being the most stereotypically pathetic character.
Nuccia Focile’s Susanna paled in comparison to her on-stage counterparts. Her sound, though objectively lovely, holds a little more weight than is ideal for this role. Mozart’s soprano peasant and servant characters (the Zerlinas of the world) demand more buoyant agility and brightness than Focile could deliver, and her patter song tended more nasal than was appropriate for the sprightly passages. Though Focile’s energy generally matched Susanna’s wit and mischievousness, she failed to deliver the same kind of attitude where it really counted. “Sull’aria,” the lovely pastoral letter-writing duet between Susanna and the Countess, works best with a shot of Susanna’s conniving nature to counteract the otherwise pleasant but unremarkable melody. Her lackluster delivery was explained, if not excused, once I learned that her original role in this particular Figaro was actually as the Countess, which accounted for her smooth, almost noble interpretation.
Finally, the lovestruck (or, more aptly, hormone-struck) Cherubino was played perfectly by mezzo Karin Mushegain; her gregarious physical acting and beautifully understated voice melded together into one of the most enjoyable trouser roles I’ve ever seen. Her interpretation, though easy to write off as simply superficially hilarious, was particularly impressive because of the detailed directorial choices. For instance, in her diegetic song for the Countess and Susanna (“Voi che sapete che cosa è amor”), an increase in vibrato and a rounded, more proper tone transformed the melody into an ad hoc performance, one immediately commended by the Countess.
The campiness of Figaro can swerve into soap opera territory quite easily, and in the best way. I had forgotten about the Maury moment where Figaro discovers the true nature of his parentage, and in this production this only partly necessary plot point adds something refreshing, extrinsic to the libretto itself. That is, Seattle Opera’sFigaro has a commendably diverse cast (commendable insomuch as such diversity on the opera stage has been a long time coming) and when a white Marcellina (former Seattle Opera Young Artist Margaret Gawrysiak) and a black Dr. Bartolo (Seattle Opera favorite Arthur Woodley) claim their Chinese son and no one bats an eye, it may not be revolutionary but it is happily consistent with the opera’s humanism.
As for the pacing, this production positively speeds through its three-and-a-half-hour run-time, starting with the overture, performed at break-neck tempo (just a notch below uncontrolled), but without crowding the dirty-details plot and mesmerizing, calm moments of reflective aria. I am always struck by Mozart’s ability to build and layer ensemble numbers, like the fabulous Act II bedroom finale, built on a foundation of trickery and reveals and vengeance. The staging, done by Lang himself in his Seattle Opera directorial debut, is particularly sensitive to musical detail, and the costuming added another layer to this visually stunning collection of characters onstage. To the left, the Count and his uppity cohorts are swearing revenge in a sea of dark, shimmering denim; on the right, the Countess and the indignant couple-to-be Figaro and Susanna gain our sympathies with softer fabrics and pale-washed hues.
Seattle Opera delivered a solidly entertaining production, though on opening night, there were still several loose ends that felt only partially deliberated. The chorus has a small role in Figaro–really just the wedding and its preceding scene–and despite Lang’s attempts at including them more, creating comical vignettes between scenes and alongside arias, few of them played to the extent that his vision demanded. (Servants violently chopping vegetables as Marcellina and Bartolo schemed was absolutely perfect; servants scrubbing the walls during the Count’s moody rumination was nonsensical and distracting.) Though Seattle Opera’s imaginative staging made the dragging Act IV garden scene more compelling than usual, the directorial creativity got out of hand in trying to make the wedding’s dance steps more entertaining. I would have preferred a classic contredanse to a stamping-bull-and-toreador routine—though, I admit, the testosterone-fueled spectacle of it was quite appropriate.
Conductor Gary Thor Wedow has perfected the art of directing an inconspicuous orchestra, rivaling a film score in his ability to enhance emotions without anyone recognizing it. Philip A. Kelsey’s fortepiano continuo was particularly lovely, adding an air of quiet domesticity to the recitatives and less dramatic moments.
In all, Lang’s Figaro is infused with spirit, raunchiness and quality performances. This show always strikes me as the Mozartian mirror to a Downton Abbey binge, fueled by the need for salacious but classy entertainment and escapism from the banalities of one’s own life. This production will give you distraction through comedy, but it will also give you art.
The Marriage of Figaro plays at Seattle Opera through January 30. Get your tickets and see the schedule here.