Cher Public

Ten thousand bedrooms

The Metropolitan Opera desperately needed a new production of Le nozze di Figaro. The old Jonathan Miller production in its last revival had degenerated into a freakshow. My most vivid memory is the fingernails-on-chalkboard Susanna Mojca Erdmann simpering on the apron of the stage as the libretto called for her to be frantically shuttling Cherubino out of the Countess’s window. It was pure filth.  

General Manager Peter Gelb obviously got the message that major changes were needed, and so he employed the British director Richard Eyre for a new production where the motto seems to be “make the trains run on time.” The set wasn’t that big unwieldy Miller dollhouse, but a handsome rotating device where the stage is filled with bronze columns that vaguely resemble a Moorish castle. Scene changes were efficient, and singers were directed to briskly get the hell offstage once their number was over.

Eyre updated the production to the 1930’s, so out went the frills and corsets, and in came practical if dowdy mid-calf dresses that allowed for quick costume changes. Sometimes the singers were in such a hurry to make their exits that they completely forget to use the “doors” in the set and instead walked straight across the apron of the stage.

The direction is pretty traditional Figaro fare. There’s no new concept imposed on the work. It’s a no fuss, no muss production. It will probably serve the house well in a gazillion revivals. However for a new production it already feels stale and routine, and for this the blame can be laid probably less on Eyre than on conductor James Levine.

The maestro seems to have divided the entire score into “the important stuff” and “the other stuff.” When Jimmy feels that a moment is “important,” slows the orchestra down to a deliberate crawl, and severely tests the breath control of all his singers. This is probably to highlight the “beautiful” parts of the score, but the end result is bizarre.

For instance the breathless, fervent “Non so piú” became a dirge where poor Isabel Leonard (Cherubino) at one point was singing completely a cappella and kept looking nervously down at the orchestra to see when Jimmy would pick his baton up again. When Jimmy deems the music “not important” he barnstorms through it with all the sensitivity you might expect from a 1950’s Parma Tosca air check. The wonderful contrasts and nuances of Mozart’s score were erased.

The good thing about a premiere production is there was some effort to cast even the minor roles with quality singers. Ying Fang (Barbarina) was exquisite, with a beautiful bell-like voice and a naturally sweet stage face. “L’ho perduta, me meschina” was oddly the one time where Jimmy’s “let time stand still” approach worked—with a voice like Fang’s, you wanted the little aria to last forever. It was wonderful to see Suzanne Mentzer (Marcellina) again—she’s still a beautiful woman and a natural in Mozart. I didn’t really like John del Carlo’s blustery Bartolo but he’s a good comic actor and he and Mentzer made a nice comic team.

The leads were less evenly matched. Let’s start with the good: Peter Mattei (Count Almaviva) was amazing. His voice is large and naturally silky (my most vivid memory of him is how he made Amfortas’s often excruciatingly long monologues into ethereal mad scenes), but his singing was Exhibit A in how Mozart does not equal boring vocalise.

He brought an energy and menace (as well as a certain Donald Trump-like buffoonery) to everything he sang. His double aria in Act Three was a master class in how to make the Count simultaneously loathsome and sexy. Mattei was the only lead to make his character a three-dimensional person. You recognize this guy, and you’d avoid getting into an elevator with him.

Also excellent was Leonard as Cherubino. The 1930’s costume made her look like K.D. Lang, but she made for a sympathetic, fun, funny pageboy. I’ve often found Leonard pretty but bland in the past, but she was a real charmer tonight and “Voi che sapete” was lovely, despite Levine’s bizarre ritards during the aria.

Ildar Abdrazakov (Figaro) was cruder, and often played the role for cheap laughs, but his voice is basically pleasing and he looks nice in a suit. He wasn’t helped by the fact that Levine deemed his arias “unimportant” and stormed through them without a hint of subtlety. For instance the sarcastic, mocking tone of “Non piú andrai” was gone with Jimmy shooing him through the music.

Which leads me to the two women. The Contessa and Susanna are really the heart of the opera. If you don’t care about them, there’s no real reason to watch. Marlis Petersen is an excellent singer who is miscast as Susanna. For one, her tall and somewhat mature persona seem odd in a role that calls for, well, cuteness. Her voice is amazing in the upper extremes (she sings Ophélie and Lulu), but somewhat colorless and cold in the middle, and most of Susanna’s music lies exactly in that uninteresting tessitura. “Deh vieni non tardar” had her dipping into a non-existent lower register. But, since she’s basically a smart singer, she was able to make the performance  professional, if not endearing.

Amanda Majeski (Contessa) was way more problematic. She looks like a Countess—tall and majestic looking, like a Hitchcock heroine in her blond perm. But from the opening of “Porgi amor” there was a nervous, unsteady vibrato that intruded into every note she sang. It’s not a controlled fast vibrato of the Ezio Pinza/Conchita Supervia tradition. Instead she sounded like she had Parkinson’s disease in her voice box. Her high notes were wiry and even more unsteady. Her face looked frozen with nervousness. I so wanted to like her, as I always root for those last minute replacements, but Majeski’s voice is just unlikable.

Susanna and Contessa’s interactions can be played a variety of ways. They can be like upstairs/downstairs sisters, or there can be a more formal, warm employer/employee vibe. But there has to be a rapport between them—the entire opera rests on the idea that these two women, who might be natural rivals, instead hatch a clever plot because of their mutual trust and friendship.

Majeski and Petersen, though, had anti-chemistry. Even the final hug between the two women looked forced, what I call an “ice hug” where one person lightly puts her arms around the other person’s shoulders while avoiding any other point of contact. They didn’t look like women who live together and are familiar with each other. They looked like two sopranos assigned to be onstage together at the same time. The blend in their voices was awful—Majeski’s nervous, wiry soprano completely out of sync with Petersen’s cool, slender instrument. This was most apparent in “Sull’aria” but none of their scenes together were remotely enjoyable.

It remains to be seen whether new casts and perhaps a rethinking will warm up this Figaro. Right now the handsomely lavish sets but chilly vibe reminds me more of Manon Lescaut’s lament “In quelle trine morbide, nell’alcova dorata v’è un silenzio…”

This was the first performance I won through the new rush ticket lottery program. In the past if you were doggedly determined (or, in my case, unemployed) you could stand in the Met downstairs garage and queue for tickets. This online lottery system I suspect was intended to do two things: to coax people to buy full-price tickets for things they really wanted to see (for instance, I bought a ticket for Macbeth), but also to drum up attendance for items that were not selling well. I mean, if you win a $25 orchestra seat, why not get your butt to the Met and check it out? It’s a less predictable system but certainly easier than waiting for hours in the garage.

Also spotted in the audience: a very glam Angela Gheorghiu, blowing kisses and waving down the orchestra aisle.  Presumably she didn’t have to enter the lottery.

Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

  • Cicciabella

    What is Figaro measuring? Has Richard Eyre been shopping at Pottery Barn again?

  • PetertheModest

    Erdmann as Susanna. Her Zerlina was bad enough. When she sings in company, there is a noticeable difference in volume between her and anyone else.

    • Feldmarschallin

      That was the case with her Sophie. At the end of the second act you heard nothing. She is a fraud. I hope I never have to be in a performance with her again.

      • ML

        Fraud, exactly.

        Universal Shit Group. No brains. Dumb suits.

        Break up and wind down ASAP. And Hole? That’s where he belongs.

        • Maybe you could offer us some clue as to who you’re talking about, or do you prefer just to rant incoherently?

          • ML

            I prefer to rant incoherently but was referring to Erdmann and the morons at the big record conglomerates who sign bad artists because they don’t know their jobs.

          • ML

            … and force them down our throats at the once prestigious festivals they have BOUGHT AND PAID FOR.

            • messa di voce

              You had Ms. Erdmann forced down your throat?

            • You might try not buying a ticket for a performance you know will agitate you to SCREAM IN ALL CAPS, or would that be infringing on some sense of entitlement?

            • ML

              I don’t like all caps either, but I like even less the sense walking around Salzburg that the whole festival is controlled by Max Hole and his ignorant ilk. Mojca Erdmann is a promoted artist of UMG. That is the only reason she was cast as Sophie this summer. She is incompetent, essentially voiceless, in the role, and yet when the UMG DVD is made she will be miraculously audible. Like all listeners, my “entitlement” is to an honest product, whether on stage at the largest music festival or on disc.

            • Feldmarschallin

              Sometime one is forced to go to certain operas because one wants to hear the opera or conductor. I remember I had to sit through numerous Voigt operas (FroSch, Elektra) because of Thielemann or because I wanted to hear Elektra. I always was hoping she might cancel but never had that luck. Certainly ML didn’t go to Salzburg to not hear Erdmann but because it was a new Rosenkavalier in Salzburg and because GG singing his first Ochs. I am also going to the SM Premiere and that has Nadja Michael singing. But I am only going once and then waiting until next season when Denoke takes over the run.

            • ML

              Ditto for me on the “SM” (Vec Makropulos)!

    • ilpenedelmiocor

      I must say, I had the same reaction to Kathleen Kim in Masked Ball in the provinces last season: disappeared in all the ensembles. She has a chance to redeem herself with Madame Mao this year (“We’ll teach these motherfuckers how to dance!”), which I remember as being pretty good in the Met broadcast several years back.

      • ilpenedelmiocor

        Then of course there was also the time she could barely make it all the way through Grossmaechtige Prinzessin in a Met Saturday broadcast….

  • alejandro

    What a shame.

    I am so glad I am passing on this. I love this score and would love to see this opera done but other than Mattei this cast didn’t excite me. I wonder why Damrau was not asked to do this production initially. She would have made a great Contessa.

    • Feldmarschallin

      Maybe Damrau was vacationing off Sardinia in a yacht with her husband and two sons. She looked like she was having a lot of fun in the water.

  • Vox

    Majeski’s video doesn’t support your review. I find her voice extremely beautiful and expressive. Maybe she had an off night.

    • 98rsd

      Majeski was excellent in the second performance. I don’t know what the reviewer is talking about.

      • I wasn’t at the second performance. I was reviewing her performance last night.

        • ML

          If you are reviewing for Parterre, the Press Office should accommodate you.

          After all, many in the “legitimate” press corps(e) are now blogging in much less visible places than these pages.

          • I asked and was told they don’t give press tickets for blogs.

            • ML

              Oh God, they should all be fired!

            • Well why don’t you call up the Mer press office and fire them?

            • Feldmarschallin

              Well I checked several Figaro dates and there are many tickets in all areas of the house for the ones I checked. How stupid of a house not to give tickets to blogs. But of course we are talking about the Met and not some other house who might actually be in the 21th century. Way to go Met and instead of giving a ticket to a blogger who actually might be read by younger people keep the seats empty. No wonder no billioniare in NY wants to give this dinosaur any big dollars.

            • Cocky Kurwenal

              I have had press tickets from the Met when I was reviewing for a blog -- Tristan und Isolde (with Voigt/Heppner/Baird/Lehman), Rusalka with Fleming/Antonenko and Lucia with Dessay/Filianoti. Those were all a couple of years ago now though, maybe the policy has changed.

        • The Conte

          I too don’t find her voice quite as unpleasant as the review suggests. However, she needs to open her throat more and engage her arytenoids to a far greater degree. That would make the tone fuller and rounder.

          Anyway, glad to see the “star” performance of the evening came from Angie.

    • Cocky Kurwenal

      I disagree Vox, I think she’s pretty terrible in the embedded clip, and if it’s representative then I’m amazed she’s been engaged by the Met in this day and age.

  • operaassport

    Compared to this dull mess, the Miller production now looks like a work of genius. With each subsequent performance I find the Eyre more tedious. What a wasted opportunity.

  • Cicciabella

    It’s difficult to assess Ms Majeski’s Countess on the basis of this short excerpt, but I will say that the cushion-hugging makes her look like she’s nursing some time-of-the-month cramps instead of feeling so hurt she wants to die. Sir Eyre’s genius strikes again.

  • rapt

    Love your last line, PI!

  • Ilka Saro

    “It was pure filth.” Don’t hold back now!

    Actually, to me it was just very very conventional. And it had replaced the Ponelle production, which dared to be a little artsy, but was also basically very very conventional but with a more attractive cast at the opening.

  • parpignol

    I too thought Majeski did not sound good last night; in addition to the vibrato and the unsteady top, there were also what sounded like problems with breath control that hobbled the Contessa’s glorious musical lines and produced some unusual near-staccato effects; I thought that the (small) audience was completely unengaged as they coughed through Dove Sono, the magical fermata, the return to the melodic line, but then there was a nice round of applause at the end, so maybe it sounded better from elsewhere in the house; and maybe Majeski was just having an off night, because it seems strange to me that she should be having the brilliant career outlined in her bio while singing like that. . .

  • almavivante

    I don’t quite understand all this poormouthing of Miss Majeski, because I heard her at the dress rehearsal, and she was quite lovely--a very stately performance and, in particular, an exquisite “Porgi amor.” I can only guess that later perfs have gone off the beam. And just for the record, the previous production was hardly a freak show and the Met didn’t “desperately” need this new--unimpressive though inoffensive--production. The last time I saw it, the cast included Bryn Terfel, Simon Keenlyside and Hei Kyung Hong, and it was bliss.

    • You must not have seen the 2012 revival …

      • almavivante

        Thank you, Poison Ivy. My chronology is faulty. I’m remembering the 2007 performances, but I see on Met Archives that Miss Hong sang it in 2012, so I must have seen one of those perfs too. Apparently I’m conflating what I enjoyed so much in 2007 with Hong’s Countess, which I also relished, and am blotting out all else!

  • Gualtier M

    I saw last night too and I also was disappointed in Majeski who I really, really wanted to like. I have heard good things about her. Abdrazakov is a light basso cantante (Prince Igor sounded great on the HD but was so soft-grained and small in the house) and he is kind of a B+ performer. Not a really important voice but a charming stage presence and inventive actor. Not Pinza -- maybe Justino Diaz?

    There are two things I like about the production -- the scene change in Act I where the chorus praising Count Almaviva for abolishing the droit de seigneur takes place in the foyer of the palace rather than the private chamber of Figaro and Susanna. The other is that the last act happens in a space that suggests nature (a large treehouse type thing with lanterns) rather than the one desiccated tree and bench of the old Ponnelle or the little house on the rear portico of the Almaviva place of previous Miller production. The new set looks very tall and oppressive in that dark brown Moorish open woodwork panels.

    The old Jonathan Miller production was quite good and physically was in good shape for the last revival -- the coup de grace was the direction of Gregory Keller (beyond vulgar and stupid) and the three disastrous female leads. We are getting to the point where Mozart operas cannot be cast reliably. I could bore you with a recitation of the “Nozze” casts I heard “back in my day” -- this group didn’t measure up except for Mattei maybe.

    BTW: Ivy last night made a comment about vulgar sex farce antics in “Nozze”s Act IV. There was a lot of ass-grabbing and dry-humping going on that really felt tired and kind of desperate.

    I really feel that 1918 is the last gasp of the old European aristocratic order and setting the piece in 1930 just feels wrong for the social structure inherent in the piece. I guess 1930 Spain may have had a strong aristocracy with a lot of power and certainly there was a civil war brewing a few years in the future as it was for Beaumarchais’ late 18th century France. But it just felt wrong.

    I liked Mattei, Leonard and Fang a lot plus I enjoyed Mentzer too and Abdrazakov had a lot of moments. Petersen I think is at the point where she needs to move up to the Contessa. It will be interesting to see/hear the second cast with De Niese/Schrott/Sorensen/Kwiecien/Malfi et al. under De Waart in December.

    • Another thing about the 1930’s update is that the style of the period doesn’t really flatter women’s figures. I remember when Duchess Kate started wearing the mid-calf loose hemline dresses after maternity and was roundly criticized by the fashion police. It tends to make the women look very drab and shapeless.

      • bluecabochon

        A good design is always flattering. 1930s fashion is tricky but can be very elegant, even when the design has to compensate for figure flaws. There are also different dress lengths available, and there were some bad choices made in that department.

        This just a basic image page, but much of what is here is stylish, interesting and witty. I can’t agree that the 1930s is unflattering to women’s figures as a grand statement. It is unflattering to obese and problem figures, as is any period, unless clever measures are taken and the right control garments are used. There is wonderful opportunity in this period for optical illusion in the form of cut , embellishment and color contrast that can fool the eye. You just need a designer with a good eye for basic design skills like flattering the figure of a principal singer while preserving the line, serving the period and above all, the text concerned.

        There is no reason for ugliness in 1930s fashion unless it is specifically called for. Hairstyles are another matter -- not every face is blessed by marcel waves!

        • bluecabochon
        • Well I looked at the link and the figures that are flattered are: very slim women with hourglass shapes. The loose hems and the mid-calf lengths tend to make the typical “opera woman” with the thick waists look unflattering. I also noticed that in the 1930’s many of the movie stars embellished their dresses with feathers, buckles, etc. to kind of tighten the dresses around the waist/hip area, which the Nozze designer didn’t do.

          • bluecabochon

            You can do a lot with proportion, cut, fabric, and embellishment to cheat a longer line and hide thick waists, if you have the talent and right dressmakers…that is my point. Even a shoe choice can make a huge difference to a hemline. Of course the fashions with their bias cut gowns look best on lithe figures, but if you look at the IDEAS in these dresses and suits, and in better research elsewhere, you can adapt them to help with not-so-perfect figures. I was surprised that the Countess’s designs weren’t better realized -- if there was ever an opportunity to showcase the 1930s (year not readily identifiable) and possibly Paris Fashion that she could afford to buy, this was it. The black and white dress tried, but it was the wrong dress for the scene.

            • I noticed how unflattering the low pumps were. Of course then again Susanna is a maid and I think she would be wearing low pumps and a plain house dress but …

              I agree that the Countess’s outfits were disappointing, although I did like the red negligee thingie she was wearing in Act 2. I thought the Countess should have had a more grand lady hairdo.

      • Feldmarschallin

        That is not true. The 30’s certainly flattered women but it had to be the right clothes. Think of The Duchess of Windsor, Mrs Harrison Williams, Millicent Rogers, Joan Crawford and Marlene Dietrich. You never saw them look dowdy or dumpy. And though the heels weren’t as high as they are now they were not kitten heels either. Very smart were the oxfords especially when in two colors. If in the Met production the clothes were dull and dowdy then the costume designer didn’t do a good job. The Feldmarschallin herself has a John Galliano bias cut midnight blue dress cut on the bias with 30 small buttons on the side and slightly flared at the hem. This is not from the 30’s but a Galliano remake of a 30’s look. The color with is slightly scooped is in black satin and sits low on the shoulder which made for a stunning neckline in order to show off two rows of 16mm pearls.

        Here some shoes of the 30’s:

        httv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5QqDt37YQ-4

        • Feldmarschallin

    • Krunoslav

      Justino Diaz was my first Met Figaro back when I was a schoolboy, and that is exactly of whom Ildar reminded me. Affable, very easy on the eyes, a bit soft grained vocally, generally good but just not memorable of phrase.

  • jackoh

    Could someone explain to me what a “figure flaw” is. I understand that design of clothes can emphasize some aspects of the shape of a body and deemphasize others. But how can the shape or arrangement of anyone’s body be considered to be “flawed”? As I’m sure that everyone else does, I have an attraction to or preference for certain types of bodies; but does that mean that all others are somehow “flawed”?

    • bluecabochon

      As far as what I was talking about, dressing the performer, it’s about proportion, jackoh. A designer looks for flaws to camouflage and assets to play up. It’s part of the job and performers will usually tell you immediately what’s “wrong” with them and how in the past it has been dealt with -- successfully. Even the most beautiful can be very self-critical and even dysmorphic and you have to correct stuff that is visually perfect to anyone else.

      Too long-waisted
      Too short-waisted
      Big hips, no hips
      Big butt, no butt
      Too full a bosom, no bosom
      Poor posture or carriage
      Too short a neck
      Too long a neck
      Shoulders that are too narrow or too wide
      Long arms, short arms
      Big feet, small feet, if noticeable
      Too large a head for the body, or too small

      Thinning hair, sagging skin and other aging issues with visible body parts that are distracting if not relevant to the production.

      This is before weight is even spoken of -- too thin, too fat, unevenly proportioned weight. Even someone of normal weight who is physically undefined by lack of exercise can be perceived as a problem, depending on the show.

      Medical issues that have become overt and affect one’s looks. Not a flaw, but a challenge.

      It’s an interesting job. :)