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