Cher Public

Forgiveness

It was odd, if not downright uncomfortable, to watch Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. Certain allegations and newspaper articles floated through the air. But discomfort leads to growth, and opera, like all art, can be both a catalyst for painful change and a salve. 

The Count approached Susanna, his employee. He attempted to seduce her. She resisted; he pursued. She utilized her wit; he exploited his power. While in the past, these figures may have crackled with comic charisma, last night’s performance felt more menacing, more distinctly creepy. Reality’s dark undercurrents pulled one’s thoughts toward our contemporary headlines.

While the unfortunate contexts I coyly allude to are nothing to celebrate, it’s worth pointing out the inexhaustibility of Mozart and Da Ponte’s art. The opera, composed in the late eighteenth century, wrestles with the most salient concerns of the twenty-first. Despite our cultural evolution, opera, as an art form, remains an apt lens through which one might view the pressing social problems of our modern world.

While one considers the ubiquitous cases of sexual exploitation in the workplace, seething across newspapers and television screens, the character Susanna takes central focus within a reading of Le Nozze di Figaro. One can imagine her face placed between Ashley Judd and Taylor Swift on the cover of Time’s recent Person of the Year issue. Suddenly, her perspective is foregrounded and made alarmingly prescient within a national dialogue of consent, exploitation, and sexual politics.

As the opera had its season premiere at the Met, Christiane Karg made a propitious debut as this central figure. Her gorgeous, incandescent soprano highlighted a role that one might easily forget. Where others have been cloying and tacky as the Countess’ maid, Karg was charismatic, fresh, and realistic, spontaneously playing each scene for its dramatic intent: her primary concern seemed to be the work of storytelling, not soliciting attention from the audience via cutesy antics.

And, fortunately, Karg proved the rule, not the exception. Adam Plachetka was a graceful, endearing Figaro. And Serena Malfi was commendable for her droll Cherubino—something of a white whale among pants roles: a mezzo who actually acted like a boy. Maurizio Muraro and Katerina Leoson seemed to be having well-deserved fun as Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina.

And special attention should be paid to Hyesang Park, a member of the Lindemann program, whose pliant, silvery soprano enlivened the minor Barbarina. Even Robert McPherson managed to elevate a trivial role like Don Basilio to something lyrically elegant and funny.

As the count, Mozart’s iteration of our current cultural antagonist, Luca Pisaroni handled the various constituent (and often contradicting) character traits with agility. Beyond the buffa he brought to the opera, foolish and vain, he also handled the character’s more violent and erratic outbursts with satisfying malevolence. The beauty and mettle of his bass-baritone merely bolstered his adept dramatic work. In his excellent performance, one could easily locate the antecedent of our current ideas regarding toxic masculinity.

Rachel Willis-Sørensen’s naturally awkward qualities helped, rather than hindered, her performance as Countess Almaviva. Her physical unease on the stage indicated the character’s displacement—sexual, as well as social—within her domestic sphere. Her rich, velvety soprano was most effective in the middle voice; and her phrasing was especially virtuosic during her arias, “Porgi, amor…” and “Dove sono….”

Le Nozze di Figaro is an ensemble show; and each member of the Met’s cast built an authentic, original character. While figures like Count Almaviva and Figaro may participate in the genre of stock characters, familiar from commedia dell’arte, the entire ensemble pushed against these received forms, and expanded notions of what a Figaro, Cherubino, or Basilio might be.

This was especially true regarding the chemistry between Sørensen and Karg as the Countess and Susanna—two women, from vastly disparate socio-economic spheres, who manage to bridge their gaps in an act of (dare I say) radical solidarity. Much like women of the #MeToo movement, their mutual care and respect proved a secret weapon against the surveillance and oppression of the Count’s patriarchal privilege. These women, through their wit and devotion, proved a potent combination, rendering the Count’s vanity and disrespect laughable and silly.

That being said, the final act of Sir Richard Eyre’s luxurious production was a tonic for the weary soul, a magical garden of mystery and illusion. The return to nature conjured the wild, topsy-turvy sphere of the forest—the domain of radical reconfiguration, familiar to the genre of comedy. Here, as the Count pursued the means of his exploitation, he discovered in its end what he had been searching for all along—the Countess, his wife, and forgiveness. “Contessa, perdono”: he supplicated. Her response? “Più docile io sono,/ E dico di sì.” I am kinder than you, and I say yes.

Certainly, the Count should have also offered an apology to Susanna; she, perhaps even more than the Countess, suffered his abuse of power. While Mozart and Da Ponte elided this reconciliation, the Count’s shift in attention was a striking moment of self-recognition, and it indicated toward a more detailed self-reckoning. Forgiveness is a continuous process, a living amends.

So, how shall we ask for forgiveness? How shall we learn to be kinder? The Almavivas’ reconciliation points toward the difficult conversations our own culture will have to have within the coming years. Forgiveness like this cannot be demanded, nor can it be offered officiously. It must come from the mystery of radical love, a mystery that has seemed illusive in the last weeks.

Le Nozze di Figaro explicates this idea with elegance and wit, ultimately defining itself as a comedy, despite the intense emotional stakes. And again, one wonders if the way forward may involve a glance back to the past, toward the inexhaustibility of genius. I believe it will; and I hope it will help us imagine and create a more just future.

  • Armerjacquino

    Beautifully written examination of a work which demands to be taken seriously even as it serves up laughs and beauty by the bucketload. Bravo.

  • fletcher

    ‘Inexhaustible’ is exactly right. Loved this review and love this opera.

  • steveac10

    So this review (and good old AT of the Times) sent me into a Christiane Karg You-tube K-Hole. What an exquisite talent (and trill).

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S2kzM5k4Ou8

    • CKurwenal

      Thanks for sharing that, steveac10, that was really beautiful.

      • Camille

        CockyK—!
        Have you yet taken notice of a Cardiff-winning baritone by the name of Andrei Bondarenko and if so, what have you to say? I heard his recital debut last night and am left with ?????

        Thank you, and if you don’t care to comment that is fine, too.

        • Armerjacquino

          He won the song prize the year Nafornita won the main award.

          I wrote about his heat and the final here http://notsowunderbar.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/it-just-got-interesting.html

          and here http://notsowunderbar.blogspot.co.uk/2011/06/final-cardiff-post-post-cardiff-final.html

          but haven’t encountered him since.

          • Camille

            How helpful and much appreciated.

            Let me just tell you: your spies were correct about the inaudibility issue. I was seated in a quite small recital hall (Weill) and had to strain my ears to hear—downstairs, as I was seated in the small balcony (where I enjoy gazing at the chandeliers as compenso for when things, as they often do!, go wrong at these prominent debut-type recitals).

            He is certainly invested heavily in portraying himself as the deeply-feeling Russian anima interpreter, and a couple Tschaikovsky songs toward the end were nice, at that. He sang three songs by the composer Svridov, popularised by our beloved and irreplaceable Dmitri, and could only resignedly conclude that he was not in any way, shape or form his heir. A false Dmitri.

            Also, you mention the hair. He had his hair in one fashion and posed langorously for the posters advert for this recital, and then seemed to look like someone else entirely IRL. Overall, a downer.

            You mention the Joycester’s “niceness”. That’s a by-product and corollary to her coming from the Midwest or “Heartland”, as people are to call it. They are heavily invested in it. There is anparticular sub-division called “Minnesota Nice”, even more squeeky and which may be viewed in the Coen Brothers movie “Fargo”, that is, when someone is not be shot, blungeoned to death, or fed in chunks to a wood chipper.

        • CKurwenal

          I haven’t heard Bondarenko live Camille but I have always been aware of what he’s been up to because I am friends with Gary who accompanied him in New York the other day. Is he a bit of a Holzmair/Goerne style of singer, or on a smaller scale still?

          • Camille

            Yes, well, you managed to read my mind as I had intended to ask and forgot to do so about your friend, the accompanist, as he shed quite a bit of stylish musical bright light on the recital and compensated in part for what the baritone did not succeed in delivering.

            It was an interesting, to me, program as he sang the Ibert Don Quichotte song cycle (which I had the good grace a while back to see a film of Chaliapin singing, and in which he was just astounding), with an interim of Fauré chestnuts, “Les berceaux” and “Fleur jetée”, and then sang the Ravel Don Quichotte cycle. And without any visible energy and with perhaps sufficient voice for the first few rows downstairs all ‘sung’, rather astonishingly in the manner of a diseur. It was delivered in a manner such that we were allowed the privilege to view him in his own special reverie of the world whilst singing and as if that should satisfy us. Add to that a notable and very unpleasant shaking of the voice as it went even a small ways up the staff, sounding as if he had never learned how to make that adjustment nor to cover in the way a male voice must, baritone being something different from tenor. I did consider leaving at the interval but as I thought the true test would be the Rachmaninov and Tschaikovsky songs to come, I relented from my usual impulse and was rewarded with one or two Tschai songs which more or less landed, but after an entire programme, very small compensation. There was one wan Russian song as an encore and then it was good night.

            I am not at all certain what has become of him since winning the Cardiff quite some time ago, (he does appear to be singing in the Zürich opera house), but from armer’s blog date I note 2011 — in the programme, a miasma of agent’s blurb touts him as “one of the most exciting young artists”, an assertion I find incredible. More a cure for my insomnia, instead.

            As It happened, I first heard Hvorostovsky about five years after his Cardiff win and that was a real voice, be it recital or be it opera, and a real presence, not to be compared with this present one. In regard to Holzmair, I do not know him at all, and only know Goerne as opera singer, having heard his quite excellent Wozzeck with the Wiener Philharmoniker when here with Welser-Möst a few years back. He will present an interesting recital programme sometime in the spring and as assisted by that Wunderkind (kind of) Daniil Trifonov which I certainly am planning on attending and will be expecting a LOT from those two, wanting to hear Wolf’s Michelangelo Songs in particular. A few years ago I did attend the Gerhaher recital here in Zankel Hall and even if underwhelmed by him somewhat, he did display somewhat more voice and considerable more artistry in his interpretation, Beethoven “An die ferne geliebte”, and others I no longer recall, oh yes, some beautiful Haydn songs in English he sang in credible and clear diction, too.

            I wondered if you knew the accompanist as noted he was British and likely in your peer age group. He warrants the Camille Comendation of Worthy Artistic Merit, the other one does not.

            Hope you keep up with those scales and soldier on.

  • Savannah Dillard

    Bravo!!!!
    What a beautiful, thought-provoking review! Would more reviews be as stimulating as this…

  • Camille

    There is a discussion of Le Nozze di Figaro within a review article in The New York Review of Books, and Mozart’s relationship to various contesse and baronesse, in The Politics of Opera: A History from Monteverdi to Mozart of the Mitchell Cohen book, (published by St. Martin’s), as written by Mr Larry Wolff, the NYU professor who has also written an interesting book now out a few years:The Singing Turk: Ottoman Power and Operatic Emotion on the European Stage from the Siege of Vienna to the Age of Napoleon.

    Small excerpt of the review in this concluding paragraph discussing Mozart and his ‘Marriage’:

    Did Mozart really believe it? His musical attentions to Countess Almaviva suggest that he was already nostalgic for the world she would soon lose, as [Edmund] Burke would be for the lost world of Marie Antoinette (who was almost exactly Mozart’s age). In one of Mozart’s longest and most stunning melodic lines, echoed by a plaintive oboe, the countess sings: “Dove sono i bei momenti di dolcezza e di piacer?” (“Where have they gone, the beautiful moments of sweetness and pleasure?”). She is remembering her once-happy marriage, but the lyric equally suggests a broader nostalgia for the ancien régime that was already passing in Josephine [Emperor Joseph II] Vienna and Mozartean Europe, a nostalgia so exquisite that it gives the lie to any simple association between Mozart and revolutionary class politics. After losing her vocal thread in her emotional turmoil, the countess, without help from the orchestra, must pick out of the air the single
    note, a C-natural, that will allow her to rediscover her equilibrium — the righting of a disordered world that could be achieved only in the musical
    dimension.

    [Now, an aside. As pretty an allusion as Mr Wolff makes with his assertion the Contessa must pick out that C from the æther all by her little self, it is a tad fanciful and in the best belletristic tradition of reviews in music, since any competent soprano would have little trouble in doing just so, even if the apparent effect achieved by Mozart would make it seem so.]

    What preceded this was several paragraphs more of a discussion regarding Mozart and his references: e.g., did he read Rousseau? As Mr Wolff states: Of course, Pierre Beaumarchais read Rousseau and Beaumarchais’s The Marriage of Figaro was the inspiration for Mozart’s opera, et seq.

    And Mr Wolff follows with:
    Discussing the political implications of The Marriage of Figaro, Cohen emphasizes the theme of servants “calling the tune,” as in Figaro’s aria of defiance:

    “Se vuol ballare, signor contino, Il chitarrino le suonerò.
    [If you want to dance, little count, I’ll play my little guitar.]”

    Several more paragraphs then follow this one which may be of interest in discussing this great masterwork, but extracting any further will not do justice, and if one is inclined to seek it out it may prove worthwhile, especially in context to what Mr James has to say here on parterre.

    Now then, I am far more interested to see what Mr Cohen will have to say about the politics of his starting point, Monteverdi, or I should better say, Machiavelli, and the effect his 1513 work Il Principe upon the Florentine courts. It was the beginning of a long journey towards glorifying sitting rulers as reflected in the choice of some subject matter, La Clemenza di Tito as a culmination point which springs immediately to mind, with the much earlier Nerone positively a machiavellian manœuverer par excellence. Their investigation into and incursions upon recreating an ancient Greek ideal were still decades yet to arrive on the scene, so to begin with Macchiaveli’s Principe and draw a through line to the Gonzaga court and Monteverdi, will be an interesting stretch, I reckon, et j’espère.