'Figaro': A well-tempered marriage

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By Alicia Solomon

“The Marriage of Figaro” has been one of the world’s most popular operas almost since its first production in Vienna 222 years ago. Through Mozart’s immortal music, never more sublimely simple, and the revolutionary, politically-incorrect play of Beaumarchais, the complex depths of the human heart are plumbed under the deceptively pleasing guise of romantic farce. Nobody dies, true love triumphs and everyone is paired off appropriately.

This summer’s production at the Santa Fe Opera is up to the formidable challenge of doing this masterpiece justice. A castful of talented young Mozarteans spin and intertwine their voices along with their schemes, with exquisite blend and humor. Indeed, the voices seemed to my ear remarkably similar, vocalism uniformly high; and character differentiation depended almost solely on personality. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien as the privileged, arrogant Count, and Venezuelan bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, his wily valet Figaro, both display rich, powerful voices in entirely different personas. English Rose Elizabeth Watts as a feisty maid and bride Susanna brings a lovely, lyric soprano only slightly lighter than the golden lines of Susanna Phillips’ dignified, melancholy Countess. Mezzo Isabel Leonard exudes the passion, despair, and awkward body language of a teenage boy as Cherubino; and congratulations to first year apprentice Jamie-Rose Guarrine, who added sparkle and color in her bright red bodice as the cameo ingnue Barbarina.

Such a strong ensemble of well-matched voices made for duets, trios, and quartets up to octets remarkable for their blend, balance and beauty. If I had to pick my favorites, they would be mezzo Michaela Martens in ice blue as housekeeper and erstwhile bride Marcellina; and wiry music master Don Basilio, the lone tenor of the opera, energetically played by former apprentice Aaron Pegram. Both had beautifully clear, focused voices, one dark and the other bright; and both brought an extra pizzazz to their characters that helped keep the somewhat static staging from lagging.

If Jonathan Kent’s stage direction was rather static, it was also very classical, and served the production well; undoubtedly contributing toward the exquisite blend by allowing both singers and audience to be still and focus purely on this heavenly music.

And speaking of heavenly music, the orchestra under Irish maestro Kenneth Montgomery danced along gracefully, propelling forward movement while sustaining Mozart’s arching lines. Bravi tutti!

I was a little under-whelmed with costume designer Paul Brown’s natural whites and neutrals palette; taupe, brown, gold being the brightest color (on principles) with the exception of Barbarina in the last act, and the Count’s dashing ankle length coat of deep sienna in the first. The Countess, of course, was magnificently gowned in elaborate brocades of ice blue, white and gold.

The natural palette translated to better effect in Brown’s scenic design. At the beginning of the overture, the entire stage is covered in flowers, standing up as if growing. Six bewigged and powdered footmen enter and proceed to pick them, baring the front (level) half, and leaving the back, raked half still blooming. As Act I progresses, the flowers are more and more obscured by a diagonal wall of blond wood, interspersed with doors and windows.

The Countess’ Act II boudoir is a more interesting broken diagonal (zig-zagging) wall, with the dull glow of pewter and ornate embellishments, white flowers, mirrors, cabinets, and yes, one small, high window for Cherubino’s escape!

The Act III diagonal wall, solid again, is of frosted glass like a conservatory, with a series of French doors for all the various comings and goings. The exuberant flowers shine through beautifully, doors open or closed, and provide a much needed flood of color. Finally, we dispense with walls, and end up in the bountiful garden, “under the pines.”