Wallis Giunta as Cherubino, John Brancy as Figaro. Photo Andrew Alexander.
Wagner’s vision of Opera was essentially the Gesamtkunstwerk, a dialogue of all the arts. There is no doubt that the public often perceives Opera as essentially a musical performance (instrumental and vocal) but I have always felt that a performance of “théâtre chanté” which is where Mozart found the purist expression of his dramatic genius, must include all elements of a staged production to do justice to the meanings imbedded in that wonderful music.
Take the overture to the Marriage of Figaro . Last night, it t burst upon us at a most furious clip, under the impeccable playing of the musicians and the magical direction of Kevin Mallon. It left me out of breath and perfectly in the mood to receive what was coming: a light hearted, deliciously playful outpouring of “théâtre comique”. I was not disappointed….for the most part. The voices were excellent expressions of that dramatic genius as they transformed their recitatives and their arias into truly theatrical moments of comic acting, Opera buffa met Opéra comique in one of the most enjoyable evenings I have spent at Opera Lyra in a long while.
There was the basso buffo Dr Bartolo (Peter McGillivray ) whose lascivious laughter permeated his rich bass voice and made him a more fearful opponent to Figaro’s marriage. We see and hear the puffed up Count Almaviva (James Westman) strutting like a cock around his domain as he lusts after Susanna (silver tongued soprano Sasha Djihanian) , Figaro’s bride to be. We also see and hear how the more serious solos and deep emotional moments take us beyond the comedy and develop in acts three and four as the Countess (Nathalie Paulin) laments her husband’s infidelities (a beautifully lyrical soprano with deep emotional ranges), and Susana’s aria in act IV tells us about her approaching love and her worries. Nevertheless the most exciting moments were the dramatic ensemble singing where seven characters, each singing their own version of the situation, together unravel the dilemma of Figaro’s marriage contract to Marcellina (Lynne McMurtry) , that “wretched witch” sings Susanna in Act I when she confronts her rival, Maracellina and their naughty playful insinuations become pure comic theatre where music brings in an added level of pleasure. Needless to say more, the musical development and the performances were all exquisite.
However I found that the set was so oppressive that one might have done better to remove it altogether and make do with some great lighting effects, , some soft wavy material and a few props.
Admittedly, it was a beautiful example of well researched realistic architectural detail but it created a sense of confusion in relation to the opera. This opéra comique is light, playful, and emotional. The Young man Cherubino performed with much flowing ease and fluidity by Wallis Giunta becomes the iconic presence of youthful desire, shifting identities and the whole wondrous spirit of this event but then there were those columns! That heavy architecture that suggested Italian Renaissance, perhaps colonial Spain, or the Italian palace where Juliette is about to take her own life!! Consider the countess Almaviva’s dark and mysterious boudoir, draped with heavy velvet curtains, vast expanses of lush material that suggested wealth but created the sense of a Spanish vengeance tragedy, or a Romantic catastrophe about to happen. The sense of time was completely tossed to the wind. The arrival of the jealous axe-wielding Count in his wife’s boudoir, looking for Cherubino, was a staging that took us to the brink of French farce, which was excellent but it seemed incongruous on that heavy handed set, especially given the outcome of that scene which became a joke, a funny misunderstanding all based on the intervention of the bumpkin gardner who should have kept his mouth shut. The set showed the stability of the artistocratic class and the count’s world. However Beaumarchais, da Ponte and Mozart are showing exactly the opposite. Class distinctions that are breaking down. In fact, it was nearly Feydeau..with the so-called lover locked in the closet and then escaping through the window, as Figaro, the powerfully dramatic tenor John Brancy who soared above the orchestra, apparently orchestrated the whole thing. The singers/actors all performed with great perfection but that scene did not coincide with that set!
The costumes of the household staff did suggest Downton abbey – that was supposedly their intention – but the group choreography was rather stiff. uncomfortable and impenetrable which and had nothing to do with the playful slightly chaotic world we were promised in the overture. One even had the impression that the people working on the scenography which originally came in from the New Orleans Opera Association, were not sure whether they wanted to show us Edwardian England or Renaissance Italy or somewhere beyond or in between. And that garden with the Mediterranean trees and dark moonlit atmosphere with the strange fountain suggested a deeply exacerbated romanticism or a scary form of symbolism that might have appeared at the end of the 19th century with living gargoyles hiding somewhere in the shadows. . . It had nothing to do with what was essentially a comedy moving towards more serious opera that the music reveals at the appropriate moments, an opera that is a light hearted event all the same reflecting the commedia dell’arte origins of this work, something the lyrics and the music suggest constantly.
This was nevertheless, one of the most exciting Opera Lyra musical performances I have seen in a long time. The orchestra, the singing and the related acting were exceptional thus, it was a fine tribute to Mozart . As for the set, there is nothing wrong locating a work in another time, space or world, even in an abstract space of timelessnes. I suppose the problem is to harmonize the ear and the eye and that is no doubt one of the great challenges producing opera. Robert Lepage was hired by the Met to redesign Wagner’s whole Ring cycle. Some of it was brilliant, some of it overshadowed the singers and appeared to be overkill. Still Lepage’s staging was an attempt to renew the work and we must certainly recognize the value of Opera Lyra’s attempts to rethink The Marriage of Figaro . This then is definitely a production to see.
The Marriage of Figaro continues until March 28 in Southam Hall at the NAC. Call 1-888-991-2787,