The Marriage of Figaro is a marriage of Beaumarchais’ witty, satirical play about the foibles of lovers and the presumptions of class, with the witty music of Mozart at his most lyrically beautiful, the marriage perfectly brokered by the libretto of da Ponte.
The Count Almaviva, a lecher of the first order, lusts for Susanna, maid to the Countess and betrothed to Figaro, the Count’s valet. Almaviva would take advantage of a medieval law giving nobles the first right of entry to the nuptial chamber when a servant weds, the groom displaced on his wedding night. Barbaric, of course, but rank has its privileges, at least until this complicated plot takes over with the expected twists and turns of high farce – mistaken identities, disguises, deceptions, double crosses, blunders, and mishaps. Add a subplot or two and the Count’s page, Cherubino, a walking embodiment of overactive libido, stir well, and, with genius like Mozart, you have the makings of a masterpiece. Of course, making Cherubino a pants role – and then having the woman playing a man dress in drag as part of the scheme – adds an extra dollop of bubbly buffa to the totally delightful confusion.
The current production of Figaro at the Deutsche Staatsoper has snapped any complacency that might have existed in a city that has three major opera companies and a symphony orchestra that vies with Vienna for the crown of best in Europe. The A-list was out in force the other night and they gave this performance a standing ovation – commonplace (and thereby meaningless) in the U.S., but here, a rare acknowledgment of the finest quality. Under the brilliant baton of Daniel Barenboim, this is nothing less than a consummate Figaro; one simply cannot imagine a better realization of the beauty of the music and the fun of the farce than that delivered by an ensemble of surpassing musicality, acting skills, and sheer charismatic stage presence.
The production is largely a traditional one, though its look is more conceptual than realistic. Most of the costuming is either 18th century or, for the Count, for example, clothes of a rather timeless look. But the character of Marcellina wears a handsome, though anachronistic outfit from the pre-World War I period. The color scheme is autumnal, browns and golds, with golden lighting to match, a Rembrandtesque palette. It all looks subtly stylish and just slightly edgy.
Cecilia Bartoli sang the Susannah with all her considerable musical power; in this smaller venue her voice is, perhaps, more comfortably suited than, say, at the huge Metropolitan Opera. The other principals were played by rising young stars on the Berlin scene. Gossip has it that there was local resentment at the importation of Bartoli, given the availability of local talent, but this did not turn out to be a "Bartoli" evening – this was a fully balanced ensemble performance. Stage director Thomas Langhoff succeeded in reining in Bartoli’s tendencies to acting excess, resulting in a delightful Susannah. Roman Trekel as the count and Rene Pape as Figaro both displayed big, ringing instruments, combining fine rendering of the score with genuine thespian abilities. Emily Magee was a beautiful Countess with perfectly controlled delivery, producing sounds of moving beauty and Malena Ernman’s Cherubino delivered a comical reading that earned her a housefull of new fans.
All too often, Figaro is played with the broadest of crudely worked buffoonery. Langhoff found all of the humor and wit for this productionwithout demeaning the characters. Slapstick has its moments, but all the more effective for being used sparingly and judiciously.
Don’t worry that Bartoli will be gone after the early performances. This is a show that stands on its own by any standard. See it if you possibly can.