Seattle Opera’s “Le nozze di Figaro” finds humor despite an assortment of challenges
Seattle Opera kicked off the New Year with a performance of “Le nozze di Figaro” (“The Marriage of Figaro”) that strayed a little off target. Part of the problem stemmed from the sets, which featured a series of huge, movable panels. Also, the cast didn’t have quite the right chemistry to make the story flow, which was too bad, considering that the production marked general director Aidan Lang’s debut as stage director of a Seattle Opera production. Yet even though things missed a bit, the opera’s many comic moments succeeded in delighting the audience at McCaw Hall on opening night (January 16).
The sets, designed by Robin Rawstorne for New Zealand Opera, opened the performance with an imposing paneled wall that stretched across the front of the stage. After the wall separated (vertically down the middle), one or more rooms of the Almaviva residence came into view. Various alignments of the big front paneled walls and other dividing panels that were guided by overhead wires determined which rooms of the residence were revealed. Part of the stage floor moved in sequence with the dividing panels, so that none of the props were knocked over. The scenic idea was intellectually stimulating but got in the way of the story, and it placed the singers far from the audience. On top of that, one of the panels creaked loudly during the beginning of Act II when the countess expressed her sadness because of her philandering husband.
Superb singing by Chinese bass-baritone Shengyang made the role of Figaro memorable. From the top to the bottom of his range, his resonant voice radiated, often with a bit of extra ornamentation thrown in. He could also switch to a lovely head tone for a high and then emphasize the same note later with full-throttle vigor. Unfortunately, Nuccia Focile’s Susanna suffered in comparison with a tonal quality often was uneven and sometimes slightly pinched.
Morgan Smith’s baritone voice wonderfully complimented his swaggering Count Almaviva. Bernarda Bobro’s Countess Almaviva sang with impeccable clarity but was a bit too restrained. Karin Mushegain created delightful chaos as the carefree Cherubino. Margaret Gawrysiak’s matronly Marcellina and Arthur Woodley’s conniving Dr. Bartolo were delightfully spot on. Steven Cole was a cutup as Don Basilio, devising a unique character voice that sounded like someone singing through a flutophone. Charles Robert Austin excelled as the grumbling gardener Antonio. Alasdair Elliott chimed in expertly as the notary Don Curzio, and Amanda Opuszynski made the most of her role as Barbarina.
The action had humorous moments, but some of the funny moments were tempered by reality, such as presence of a very pregnant Barbarina, and the scene in which a crippled war veteran helped to dress up Cherubino as a soldier. The funniest person was Smith whose facial expressions as the frustrated Count were priceless. Mushegain created numerous hilarious moments and got tons of laughter when Cherubino was discovered by the Count. The astonished looks from all of the characters when Figaro’s parents were revealed drew a big reaction from the audience.
The costumes were cleverly designed by Elizabeth Whiting, but, except for those audience members who sat in the first few rows, it was hard to tell that they were made of denim.
Under the baton of Gary Thor Wedow, the orchestra ripped along with a lithe and balanced sound. Philip Kelsey added outstanding accompaniment from the keyboard of a fortepiano replica of an instrument from Vienna circa 1795.