MOT’s ‘Figaro’ “Not to be missed…”
DETROIT—Mozart’s lushly beautiful The Marriage of Figaro is now being staged by Michigan Opera Theatre, and this classic opera buffa is more fun than it has any right to be. From the first notes of the famous overture, we are assured a night of silly, fast-paced humor steeped in romance, intrigue and some of the finest vocal music ever written. Most people, even opera newbies, will recognize many of the tunes. This production, under the baton of MOT Principal conductor Stephen Lord, is not to be missed.
The scenery, costumes and lighting are sumptuous and festive. The performers are in top form – the principals as well as the chorus – and the MOT orchestra stands with the best. The point of this production is to make sure everyone has a good time, and they succeed.
The story is set in 18th-century Seville. Imagine a situation in which your livelihood depends on putting up with the unwanted sexual advances of a predatory boss. Yeah, that. Some 260 years before Hollywood and Washington, D.C., put this subject in the headlines, French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais wrote a revolutionary play (literally revolutionary) satirizing a lascivious young Spanish Count who publicly rescinds the unpopular “droit de seigneur” and then secretly tries to enforce it by bedding a young bride before her wedding night. Mozart and the brilliant librettist Lorenzo De Ponte used this story as the basis for The Marriage of Figaro, a comedy that could easily be subtitled “Count Almaviva and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.”
Because the Count deserves everything he gets, this is a comedy. Modern audiences may have trouble laughing at the Count’s exploitation of his very young domestic staff, his anger at a young page who is in love with love, his infidelities against a lovely and loyal young wife, and the ridiculous jealousy that brings him to accuse this innocent Countess of the very crimes he himself commits. Consider, however, that this opera is 230 years old; the fact that the peasants outwit the Count in the end, and that Mozart’s intricate score uses devices and folk themes that undermined the social order of the day, and we can consider this opera as a win for the home team.
The story famously opens with Figaro lustily measuring the floor to make sure the nuptial bed he’s about to share with his bride Susanna will fit. Figaro is delighted that the Count has generously provided the room adjacent to his own, in order to make it easy for Figaro to respond to his bell even at night. Susanna has to school Figaro, explaining that as soon as the Count sends Figaro on an errand, it will be Susanna herself answering the Count’s needs. The enraged Figaro hatches a fantastic scheme to shame the Count, which over the next three acts takes so many twists and turns that everyone is caught in the net.
Bass-baritone Aubrey Allicock as Figaro and Devon Guthrie as Susanna are well-matched – they not only sing admirably, but bring a mischievous sense of comedy to their performance. (Matthew Stump and Maeve Hoglund alternate in these roles on November 19.) It is the Count and the Countess, however, who hold our attention in this opera. Stephen Powell’s brown velvet baritone curls around the legato passages in a way that makes us want to forgive his indiscretions. When Powell sings “Contessa, perdona” in the final act, who can resist? (Edward Nelson alternates the role of the Count.)
Lyric soprano Nicole Cabell returns to MOT as the long-suffering Countess Almaviva. With her gorgeous voice and matching good looks, she simply steals the show. Her “Porgi, amor,” in which she admits both her own unwavering love for the Count and his waning affections, is heartbreaking. Her voice is full and generous at both ends of an expansive range. (Julie Adams alternates as the Countess.) In the unlikely duet with Devon Guthrie, in which the two women write a letter that will prove the undoing of the libidinous Count, (“Che soave zeffiretto”), Cabell’s measured delivery of the lower medley shows off both sopranos to advantage.
Kudos are also in order for one of Michigan’s own – mezzo-soprano Sarah Coit, a U of M graduate – who is delightful in the trouser role of the page, Cherubino. MOT also welcomes new Theatre Studio Artist Michael Day to the stage, who sings the tenor role of the gossipy fop Don Basillio with great aplomb. (Shout out to wig designer Joanne Middleton Weaver for one of the best comic hairpieces we’ve seen.)
The terrific MOT cast also includes: Matthew Burns as Dr. Bartolo, Susanne Mentzer as Marcellina, Nicholas Davis as Antonio, Angela Theis as Barbarina, Sasha Noori as Don Curzio and Tiffanie Waldron and Sandra Periord as Bridesmaids.
This is a delicious opera with more plot twists than a French farce. It’s an excellent choice for “first opera,” and all are welcome to enjoy the short Opera Talk with Dr. Peace, given one hour before each performance. The Marriage of Figaro – or more correctly, Le nozze di Figaro – is sung in Italian with English supertitles projected above the stage, so everyone is in on all the jokes. (Everyone, that is, except the Count.) And yes, the play ends with a wedding – but discovering who will marry whom is half the fun.
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