On a new production of The Marriage of Figaro at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris.
Unlike Mozart’s other two great operas, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte, The Marriage of Figaro ends on a lighter note. Susanna forgives Figaro for his doubts about her fidelity while the Countess forgives the Count for the attempted exercise of his droit de seigneur at Susanna’s expense. Their endings aside, each opera deals with attraction, vulnerability, jealousy, betrayal, and forgiveness, and as the action unfolds in the space of a day, it is essential, especially in Così and the Marriage, that the central characters demonstrate strong emotional, if not physical, attractions to one another. Lacking that, the elements of jealousy, betrayal, and forgiveness fall flat.
The headline story of the Marriage, seen last Saturday at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées in a new production by the film director James Gray, is the marriage between Susanna, the Countess’s maid, and Figaro, the Count’s majordomo. But the philandering Count has his eye on Susanna, while a housekeeper, Marcellina, has her eye on Figaro. Basilio, the family music teacher, is miffed at Figaro for past slights, while the Count’s young pageboy, Cherubino, is powerfully attracted to the Countess but also spends quality time with the gardener’s daughter, who has previously spent quality time with the Count. And that’s just the background—with this bubbling mix of lust and grievance, what could go wrong?
Perhaps the stars over Paris were a little out of line, but the attractive sparks between several pairs of main characters were missing. In Act I’s opening “Cinque, dieci,” there was little of the essential chemistry between Robert Gleadow’s Figaro and Anna Aglatova’s Susanna: while measuring the floor for their marital bed, the two acted more like a tired old couple than a frisky pair of newlyweds. The allegedly hormonal Cherubino, to whom Mozart gifted two passionate arias expressing his love for the Countess, didn’t improve his chances with her by singing “Non so piu cosa son” and “Voi, che sapete” with a remarkable lack of ardor, and otherwise romped, arms windmilling, around the stage like a ten-year-old. (“It’s not a bloody pantomime,” growled a nearby listener.)
But the dramatic tension heightened appreciably when Stéphane Degout’s Count Almaviva arrived on the scene. Alternately blustering and seductive, rapacious and penitent, he injected much-needed life into the proceedings with his assured and characterful singing. Vannina Santoni’s Countess, too, only fully came to life with Degout on stage. While her “Dove sono” and “Porgi amor” were technically secure, it was only when she faced off with the errant Count that her voice found its assurance, holding the audience captive as she reprimanded and showed her love for him with equal force.
Marcellina’s is a smaller role that Jennifer Larmore more than filled with an excellent performance: in anticipation of her marriage to Figaro, she was all wiggling and flirtatious, unable to keep her hands off him. Once revealed to be Figaro’s mother, she was a bit less coquettish, but still couldn’t keep her hands off of him—very funny. Likewise, Mathias Vidal made his part bigger by creating a high-energy mincing, cringing, and simpering Basilio who characteristically continued to fuss even when the action was elsewhere. In the pit, Jérémie Rhorer kept a clear, strong beat and delighted us with beautiful voicing—though occasionally slightly ahead of the singers. The palpable swell of emotion that he achieved on Susanna’s climactic emergence from the dressing room in Act II, and the Countess’s soft declaration about the pardoning of Figaro and Susanna in the final scene of Act IV, were all the more effective due to Mr. Rhorer’s skillful and unobtrusive tightening of the musical line before the dénouements. The chorus was sweet-voiced and effective and the mini-ballet visually charming. As for the costuming by Christian Lacroix, we have confirmation that, while the Count was a cad in many respects, he certainly knew how to dress his employees.
In sum, a journeyman performance, but with some sparkles.
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