Cher Public

Married to the mobcap

I have an idea (soon to be angrily debunked in the comments section) that Le nozze di Figaro is rarely a source of unalloyed bliss to the chronic operagoer.

You remember the line from Six Degrees of Separation about Cats? That Aeschylus did not invent the theater for it to end up a bunch of chorus kids wondering which of them is going to kitty cat heaven? Well I’m comfortable saying that Beaumarchais, Da Ponte, and Mozart did not invent what is essentially our template for comic opera for it to end up a bunch of chorus kids mugging like high schoolers in a production of Noises Off, and yet that’s the headachey product you get about 80 percent of the time at Figaro. It is not, however, what Robin Guarino and her very accomplished ensemble cast have come up with in this summer’s revival in San Francisco.

One of the few pleasure of middle age is having seen the birth of a career in full bloom. If anything, I underestimated Lisette Oropesa the year she was a winner at the Met auditions. Her musicality was certain, but it was impossible in that context to foresee what an easy comic presence she would have. It is an unspeakable relief that at no moment was I in danger of having to describe her Susanna, brightly and freely intoned, as perky.

Her reading instead relied on the character’s intelligence and on Oropesa’s natural manner of comportment. This might have left things lopsided had not she had such an excellent foil in Philippe Sly’s Figaro. Sly could easily enough rest on the youthful beauty of his tone or on his slightly goofy hotness, but as early as “Se vuol ballare” he announced his intention not to, by singing instead with wit and spontaneity. His brief turn in Partenope last year and clips on the internet confirm it: Sly is the genuine article.

I might pause to say that I expected less in the first moments of this revival. As fine and novel as it is to have an unstaged overture these days, the curtain rose, after an account of said overture like any other (for it is the sole purpose of that music, divine as it is, in its 20 millionth playing to allow reviewers time to decide between two possible adjectives: effervescent or… well, no, there’s just the one) on an unassuming, traditional set. I won’t pretend I’m not biased a little in favor of something more risky in this work in particular.

The thing about this production, though, is that, by instinct or direction, everyone but the purely buffo characters acts and interacts like a human being. Nadine Sierra, long of breath and with here and there the slightly hooty tone of mid-century Viennese sopranos, regarded the Count with enough mixed feelings to make the final moments of the opera plausible. If she seemed a little less worldly than many proponents, a question highlighted by her Susanna-ish timbre, the director’s assertions of who these multifaceted characters might be to each other seemed to make sense of it.

Her count, Luca Pisaroni (aptly dubbed “Hot Luca” by the Wellsung blog, long ago) held up his end of things by portraying Almaviva as an unhappy man making bad decisions rather than just a raging asshole. “Hai già vinta la causa” was both vocally suave and commanding and unusually sympathetic–when he lamented about “la mia infelicita,” it didn’t seem to be purely about his inability to bang the maid. Sonorous and imposing in ensembles, Pisaroni was the starriest presence but blended gamely in with his colleagues.

Mezzo Kate Lindsey sings without that last degree of vocal individuality that separates the female boys from the female men, but it’s a warm and appealing sound and her embodiment of a gawky, horny kid was real enough that my companion, a first-time opera-goer, whispered at first curtain “that’s a woman playing Cherubino, right?” Lindsey, like the rest of the cast, was supported by Patrick Summers in a judicious use of ornamentation. This remains a matter of taste in Mozart, but nobody went all Proch Variations on anything so why complain? Summers was also attentive to the disparate voice sizes among the cast.

Did the folle journée have its off moments? Well, of course. Having Antonio stumble across the backdrop (subtly lit by Gary Marder) with garden shears during the Count’s aria seemed like an outtake from a Carol Burnett skit, and a Countess who flips her fan one time too many during “Dove sono” evokes Carmen more than Rosina. But I’ll tell you, I’ve rarely had the final bars of the opera affect me as they do everyone else in the history of time and yet here, I was convinced on a gut level. (As time goes by one has ever more gut for the convincing, alas.)

I rarely tear up at the opera but for a moment, when the Almavivas had patched things up and the Count shooks hands with Figaro, I did. An odd little gesture and, for all I know, not an uncommon one, but at just that moment, it was a confirmation of the work’s humanity.

Le nozze di Figaro plays seven more times, and then in perpetuity about every four years.

Photos ©Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera