New York Times reporters are now being trained to make strong impressions when they appear as experts on broadcast news panels. One rule: introduce only one or possibly two ideas into any answer you give. One is better. The TV audience can’t take-in more.
No one ever told that to Mozart. As the lecherous Count Almaviva in “Marriage of Figaro” summarizes at the beginning of Act Three, “What a confusion! An anonymous letter. The maid in a locked closet. My lady so agitated. A man who jumps from the balcony to the garden. Another who immediately says that it was he. I don’t know what to think.”
“Marriage of Figaro” is “opera buffa,” so filled with jokes and plot, it could make a Millennial panic– you really have to focus. If it weren’t for the glorious sounds accompanying all the buffoonery–the pure energy and light of the score, the beauty of the arias and great ensemble moments–it might be rougher going. What was hilarious in 1787 strains to earn a chuckle from today’s viewers. Still, some productions are more over-the-top than others and this one holds onto its dignity.
It helps to have beautiful voices, good direction, and singers who act. Santa Fe Opera checked all the boxes in its first live, post-pandemic performance at the Crosby Theatre on July 10. Masks were worn in the house, the opening night “Star-Spangled Banner” was not a sing-a-long, and seats were taped-off between parties– but the mood was celebratory.
This new production of Figaro was created by Laurent Pelly, who was unable to leave France due to Covid lockdowns in Europe. A stage director replacement, Laurie Feldman, took over in Santa Fe for Pelly, but he was Zoom-close—the two have collaborated in the past. Likewise, the original Figaro, Ashley Riches, was stuck in Britain, replaced by a young American baritone Nicholas Brownlee, making his company debut.
The set design, by Chantal Thomas, features a palace on a turntable (ala “Hamilton”), along with the constantly moving gears of a huge clock. All this is meant to accentuate the fact that the opera takes place in 24 hours. During the overture, the characters step onto the slowly circling set and are displayed, one by one, for the audience to see, like life-size figures on the famous rotating glockenspiel in Munich.
Rooms of the palace are cleverly manipulated by the performers, and feature doorways for singers to pass through in the middle of scenes, as the action moves on literally. Santa Fe’s open-air theatre has no proscenium, so designers are forced to come up with concepts which honor the setting sun, the wings-only stage, and entrances and exits upstage, where an invisible staircase leads players down to the lower levels of the theater. Thomas does this brilliantly.
This Figaro features a strong, confident cast, including a chorus made-up of golden-voiced Apprentice Singers. As for the leads, Susanna, the young maid betrothed to Figaro, was played by a Chinese Mozart specialist, Yin Fang. She not only sounded as clear as a bell, her comedic ability was honed—subtle but effective. Susana’s boss, the Countess, sung with darker tones by Vanessa Vasquez (who played Mimi in Boheme here in 2019), was a pleasing contrast to Fang, both dramatically and vocally. The two are at the heart of the piece—they create a feminist subtext and are aligned emotionally in an opera which otherwise features hormonal men (and woman-as-man). Vasquez’ aria, “Dove sono i bei momenti” – “Where are they, the beautiful moments,” was heartbreakingly beautiful.
Brownlee’s Figaro, and the Count, sung by Samuel Dale Johnson, were vocally strong, but never quite embodied the essence of their characters. Brownlee was good-natured but ran around the stage hoping to earn comic points with buffa physicality rather than subtlety. Johnson’s Count was more bland than villainous. In this day of “Me Too,” it would have been appropriate to play the libinous Lord of the Manor as smarmy—but Johnson never let himself get that low.
Other characters in this comedy—the Page-in-pants role, Cherubino (Megan Marino), Marcellina (Susanne Mentzer) the cougar housekeeper, the Doctor (Patrick Carfizzi) Music Master (Brenton Ryan) and gardener (James Creswell) add to the vocal complexity of the piece during Mozart’s sublime ensemble passages. “Esci omai, garzon malnato,” which closes Act 2, is a masterful example of the way the composer chose music over recitative (sung/spoken dialogue) to carry his plot and characters forward.
All Mozart operas feature hum-along melodies and familiar arias—they have become part of our lives, even if we don’t realize it. Pieces of dialogue from Figaro may not be as rooted in our consciousness but still stand out with aphoristic charm: “All happy endings must end with a wedding;” “Servant girls don’t get migraines;” “A woman always needs time to say yes.”
Figaro, like other Mozart works, is a 1000-piece puzzle—full of love and deception, sex, schemes and God. Making it through all four acts requires patience, but patience which is rewarded by an embarrassment of musical riches. Santa Fe’s new production hones in on the glory of the music without losing a bit of fun. Yin Fang and Vanessa Vasquez alone make the journey well worth it.
“The Marriage of Figaro” continues in repertory during the 2021 season at Santa Fe Opera, which runs through August 27.