Cher Public

She who gets slapped

All those who have been in a rage since the news broke this week that the Metropolitan Opera has invited Calixto Bieito to stage Verdi’s La Forza del Destino can relax and embrace the Juilliard Opera’s new Le Nozze di Figaro which opened Friday night. Although it definitely had its eccentricities, Stephen Wadsworth’s hectic production included little to offend the unhappy opponents of regietheater. And despite an uneven cast there was still much to enjoy, especially the radiant Susanna of Ying Fang.  

This Nozze concludes a Mozart-da Ponte cycle that Wadsworth, the James S. Marcus Faculty Fellow and director of the Artist Diploma in Opera Studies program at Juilliard, began there in 2012 with Don Giovanni. I missed that presentation, but the Così Fan Tutte, conducted by Alan Gilbert, done the following year was an intensely dark and challenging production, so I had high hopes for this Nozze, particularly as Wadsworth is such a devoté of Beaumarchais, having recently translated and directed both Le Barbier de Séville and Le Mariage de Figaro. Unfortunately, although it began well, his concept eventually lost focus and became increasingly chaotic.

Although they didn’t suggest southern Spain, Charlie Corcoran’s spare but effective sets and Camille Assaf’s handsome costumes immediately reassured us we were watching a comedy of manners set in the 18th century. The first act ably portrayed the homey, if busy “downstairs” world of the Almaviva household: Figaro and Susanna, a quick-witted, affectionate couple, were visited by first a particularly handsome Marcellina and Bartolo and then by a convincingly adolescent barefoot Cherubino. For once Basilio was a vigorous, sly “operator” rather than the usual decrepit fop, and the Count was more a spoiled brat than an aging roué.

While not as traumatic as discovering the male chorus sitting on toilets (as in Bieito’s version of Un Ballo in Maschera), it was a still a shock to see the Countess enter her servants’s quarters with the chorus in Act I, even more so when she sang a few lines (appropriated from Susanna). Anyone expecting the usual grande dame a step away from becoming the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier got instead an energetic, high-strung young wife who treated Susanna more as a peer than a maid.

The production started to go off-kilter in the next act when we arrived in her bedroom, a sparse affair with a rather sad single bed plopped smack in the center. Characters began to act like more caricatures than human beings and ran enough laps around that bed to resemble a NASCAR event, with Susanna proving to be quite the spitfire ending the act straddling Marcellina on the bed and slapping her silly, which she clearly learned from her mistress who in the preceding trio had socked her husband in the face.

Things calmed down a bit during the third act until the concluding fandango which began promisingly but soon devolved into a boisterous unison line-dance redolent of Riverdance. The fourth-act finale saw a lot of characters racing back and forth across the stage like Keystone Kops with Figaro now on the receiving end of a dozen Susanna-smacks. The usually moving denouement was oddly half-hearted with the Count’s remorseful plea occurring on the opposite side of the stage from the Countess, who seemed to forgive him only when he tentatively grabbed her hand in the final moments of the whirling chaos.

The onstage frenzy was mercifully not mirrored in the pit, although rarely did the breathless action pause as John Arida, the admirable harpsichord continuo player, frequently entered while the final notes of the previous number were still sounding. Conductor Gary Thor Wedow drew a fleet and alert reading from his able orchestra with particularly lovely playing from the woodwinds. Although virtually no appoggiaturas were heard, a few baby-steps toward ornamenting several of the arias proved pleasing.

While the opera is named for his part in the wedding, it’s really Figaro’s intended who drives the action, and Juilliard was lucky to have such a splendid, world-class Susanna in Fang who garnered a lot of attention last fall when she made a graceful Met debut as Barbarina on the opening night of Sir Richard Eyre’s fitful new staging of Nozze.

While Fang recently won accolades for her Iphigénie in the Met-Juilliard semi-staging of Gluck’s Aulide opera, I thought she came across as more in love with showing off the seraphic beauty of her voice than with in creating a flesh-and-blood character. However, her Susanna was fully committed and credibly mercurial. She gamely embraced the obstreperous physicality—when she wasn’t slugging someone, she was stamping on Basilio’s foot, etc. But her exquisite singing made it all worthwhile—the voice crystalline, the musicality impeccable. Her heaven-sent “Deh vieni, non tardar” was blissful and deserved its extended ovation.

Thesele Kemane delivered a less conniving, more humane Figaro than usual yet he acquitted himself handsomely although I prefer a livelier, leaner sound in the role than his substantial bass-baritone provided. Baritone Takoaki Onishi portrayed his nemesis but seemed over-parted for much of the evening. Though he was convincing as the petulant nobleman, his small sound often disappeared in the ensembles. He was at his best in a brave and vigorous reading of his aria where he added some of the higher-lying lines of Mozart’s alternate version to exciting effect.

While it was refreshing to have such a lively and vulnerable Countess, Alexandra Razkazoff’s recurrent intonation problems created havoc in her two important arias. Recent Met National Council Auditions winner Virginie Verrez and Liv Redpath sang and acted charmingly as Cherubino and Barbarina, but the show was nearly stolen by the opulently vigorous Marcellina of Samantha Hankey.

Unlike the squawking of aging former Cherubinos we’ve been subjected to in recent years at the Met, she sang the role with a rich full mezzo and pithy flair. Observing the bad old habit of cutting Marcellina’s aria was regrettable as I suspect Hankey would have killed in it. Similarly, tenor Miles Mykkanen would also have likely done a bang-up job with Basilio’s aria if given the chance; he and Önay Köse as Bartolo made due with singing and acting strongly.

If Wadsworth’s patchy choices occasionally made this I seem less than the sum of its parts, it remained a joy to hear these enthusiastic singers and musicians tackling Mozart and da Ponte’s ever-vernal masterpiece in the appealingly intimate Peter Jay Sharp Theater.

Photo: Ken Howard

  • YigeLi

    Thank you for the review.

    One minor mistake: “[…] Fang who garnered a lot of attention last fall when she made a graceful Met debut as Barbarina on the opening night of Sir Richard Eyre’s fitful new staging of Nozze.”

    Her MET debut was in “Nose” last season. ^_^

  • Bill

    The Nozze di Figaro at Julliard (seen at the 2nd
    performance -- April 26 matinee) was actually a welcome
    relief from some of the recent Met performances in that
    it was reasonably well cast with a tasteful set and
    imaginative lively staging which followed the opera’s text for the most part. Unlike the Met as well, all 3
    performances of these Julliard Figaros were totally
    sold out weeks before the performances were to take
    place and not an empty seat was to be found on Sunday.

    The set, mostly in browns with an attractive proscenium arch, was simple enough yet looked appropriate with
    much of the stage action up front. My only reservation was in the second act the Countess’s bed was directly
    in the middle front of the stage -- not really a focal point of the act. The stage direction
    was perhaps slightly overactive but not at all jarring.
    In all the Figaro’s I have seen (since 1953 with Seefried, della Casa, Kunz) I have never seen the Countess appear in the first act (Barbarina also) but here she did and the Countess even sang along with the peasant girls in the chorus and a few of
    Susanna’s lines as well. In general, was it at all
    common in the 18th century for a Countess to just enter the servant’s quarters? She pretty much stayed in the background though but I thought it strange to have her just walk in. I also thought it was a bit
    too much spice to have the Countess in the 2nd act
    spreading her legs on the bed with Cherubino -- But, in
    general, the audience seemed to enjoy the slightly hyperactive stage action and in the quiet moments as during the Countess’s two arias and Susanna’s Rosenaria
    there was sufficient reflective repose for one to concentrate on the moment and the music.

    Musically the orchestra took a bit of time to jell
    with a few bobbles in the first act -- not a large
    orchestra but the vocal ensembles were sonorously sung and the voices all blended splendidly as is necessary (though not always the case) in Figaro performances. The tempi seemed to be standard.

    As to the singers, the absolute shining light and the stunning jewel of the performance was that of Ying
    Fang’s Susanna. Having seen previously her Zerlina and
    Iphigenie at Julliard it was expected she would be
    a delightful Susanna and indeed she was. The voice is
    lyrical and fresh, nary an unpleasant utterance the entire evening and ideal for Mozart’s lyrical roles,
    Susanna, Zerlina, Despina, Pamina, Ilia etc -- it is
    of the greatest beauty though it is difficult to judge
    how powerful it might be in a larger opera house -- but
    Fang was able to brilliantly project in the Peter Sharp
    theater -- perhaps in the same manner as Reri Grist’s
    Susanna which was absolutely fine in larger opera houses. Plus Ying Fang eludes great charm -- whether she will reach the great fame of a Seefried, a Gueden, a Cotrubas, a Popp in the role remains to be seen but
    she certainly has the goods to have a sufficiently
    brilliant career perhaps sticking at first to smaller
    opera houses such as Zurich and Graz and then
    moving up to Munich and Vienna (though there are a sufficiantly number of fine Susannas milling about
    Vienna just now -Hartig, Emoeke Barath from Budapest, the wonderful Valentina Nafornita, Aida Garifullna plus several in Munich all with particularly attractive futures to make it a bit hard to crash the bevy of fine lyrics currently in Central Europe -- yet Ying Fang has all the goods and it will be quite fascinating to see just where her career will head. She definitely received the most bravos of all during her solo curtain call.

    Otherwise one found the Marcellina, Samantha Hankey to
    be luxury casting -- a rich mezzo voice and an understated viable dramatic performance which did not
    turn the role, as so often, into a caricature.
    It took me a while to really appreciate the Countess, Alexandra Razskskazoff, who sang with refinement and a clear voice -- I do not recall her singing anything flat as mentioned above -- she has the Mozart style (though during the reprise in Dove Sono she did not attempt to sing pianissimo as some great Countesses do. If she was a times a little less refined in her acting than one might expect befitting a Countess (even if not high born) it probably had to do more with the stage direction than personal choice.

    Cherubino was spendidly acted by Virginie Verrez, dearly remembered for her Gluck and Handel. She is tall and
    attractive and moves well. Her two arias were a bit of a disappointment as she was forced to hold back her
    generous voice and on occasion the pitch sagged.
    The Barbarina. Liv Redpath, had a bright voice with a slightly tight vibrato.

    As to the men, all were adequate. The Count, Takoki
    Onishi, was better in stage action and in the recitatives than in his big aria and in duet. He moves and reacts well but the deep tones required at times were a bit weak. Figaro was sung by Thesele Kemane in a very congenial way though some of the irony (of a Kunz) or the suavity (of a Prey or a Ramey) was lacking --
    The Bartolo sang smartly without being grotesque in stage action, Don Basilio as well.

    So all in all a very enjoyable Figaro graced with fine ensemble work, an attractive production visually and a Susanna who is predestined for most likely operatic stardom if her future career is carefully managed. One certainly can see her as a radiant soprano in Haydn Oratorios, Bach Passions, and of course the Mozart lyric roles, plus Gretel, Nanetta, Norina, Adina, Marzelline, Aminta, Micaela and a full spectrum of additional possibilities. The voice is that lovely and natural.

    • la vociaccia

      Happy to hear all the good things about Samantha Hankey- she was wonderful in a filmed Renee Fleming masterclass several years ago.

      She’s very, very young as well (22, I believe), but she’s clearly a very major talent to watch: