Opera Theatre of Saint Louis opened its 35th season on Saturday night with a new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's brilliant comic opera, The Marriage of Figaro. A small company that does big things, Opera Theatre has overcome plenty en route to middle age. Saturday's performance survived the last-minute withdrawal of conductor Timothy Long. Stephen Lord replaced him. Lord, the opera company's go-to conductor, had only one rehearsal in which to pull together the performance.
Pull it together he did. But on opening night too many seams were showing.
Only two comic operas made Opera America's list of the twenty most-performed operas in North America: Rossini's Barber of Seville at No. 5, with The Marriage of Figaro just behind. Both feature the scheming barber Figaro, but of the two, The Marriage of Figaro is the more senior — composed in 1786, it's considered to be the seminal modern comic opera.
The plot is basic situation comedy: Figaro is the semi-faithful servant of horny Count Almaviva. It's Figaro's wedding day. He's marrying Susanna, maid to Rosina, the Countess Almaviva, whose marriage to the count is on the rocks. The count is hot for Susanna. The countess wants to save her marriage but is hot for her page, Cherubino. Barbarina, the count's gardener's daughter, is hot for Cherubino but has been dallying with the count. Marcella, housekeeper to the lawyer Bartolo, is hot for Figaro — and has a contract saying he'll marry her in lieu of paying off a debt. Bartolo, who carries a grudge against Figaro, is hot for Marcella. Cherubino is hot for everyone.
The plays from which the Figaro operas are derived were written on the eve of the French Revolution, as the concept of inherited royalty was crumbling in Europe. Playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, an anti-royalist who ran guns for George Washington's army during the American Revolution, created Figaro as an everyman who wreaks havoc among the ruling class by conning and outsmarting his "betters" at every turn. Mozart, who spent his life trying to wangle enough commissions from various royal courts to survive, clearly identified with the wily barber. It shows in the care and love he put into Figaro. The characters are deeper than those who inhabit most operatic comedies, and their emotions are conveyed on beautifully crafted melodies.
[Editor’s note: A correction ran concerning this paragraph; please see end of article.] Each act in The Marriage of Figaro begins with one or two voices. As Figaro and Susanna, baritone Christopher Feigum and soprano Maria Kanyova entwine in the opening scene with a natural and open sound that carries throughout. Act Two opens with Amanda Majeski's emotional aria as Rosina mourns her failing marriage. Act Three features Susanna and Rosina in a gorgeous duet (which you might remember from The Shawshank Redemption). The solos and duets morph into trios; the trios into quartets. More and more voices join until sextets and septets emerge. Ultimately a half-dozen or more of Mozart's luscious interlocking melodies build into a delightful whirl, to which the cast brought both verve and passion.
For the current production, Opera Theatre commissioned a new translation, and Andrew Porter's take on the libretto is witty, lean and contemporary. His words scan elegantly with Mozart's sprightly melodies and allow the singers leeway to act out the comedy. Matthew Lau as Bartolo and Matthew DiBattista as Basilio, Count Almaviva's scheming court composer, navigate particularly tricky passages in style.
Talented singers and hard-working musicians rescued Saturday's performance. But much of the comedy was missing. Comedy is timing, timing is rhythm, and in opera the music often supplies the comedic rhythm. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, knew precisely what rhythms, stutters and pauses would draw laughs. When the singers and musicians are even a little out of sync, the whole production can go flat.
That said, the timing is bound to improve in future performances, as cast and conductor coalesce. Then the comedy, too, will likely come.
Correction published June 7, 2010: In the original version of this story, we erroneously identified Christopher Feigum as a tenor; in fact, Feigum is a baritone.
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