Well, that didn’t last long. Just four months after closing out a triumphant Ring cycle that briefly made DC the envy of opera-goers across the country, Washington National Opera has launched its new season with an exceedingly safe, borrowed production of a repertoire chestnut.
I suppose that’s not quite fair. WNO is solidly beyond the statute of limitations for reviving Marriage of Figaro, which hasn’t been seen here since 2010, and while this production (I saw the second outing on Saturday) is very much in DC’s comfort zone, the new season is devoting two out of five productions to recent compositions. Still, one couldn’t help but dwell on still-fresh memories of headier offerings in the opera house.
On the plus side, this is a highly watchable show that takes pains to avoid the stodginess and self-seriousness that can turn Figaro into four hours of exquisite paint drying. Supported by a game cast of younger American singers, director Peter Kazaras’ inventive touch keeps the farce entertaining and endearing, generally without resorting to cheap laughs.
He also keeps this Figaro largely untroubled by the work’s deeper currents and ideas. I bring this up not to imply that every Figaro production needs to be some psychosexual journey through the history of class relations, but it struck me Saturday that the other Mozart/Da Ponte collaborations now routinely serve as opportunities for more adventurous presentations by relatively “safe” companies, while conservative takes are still the default for Figaro.
A bigger issue for this show is that, despite strong constituent parts, the musical picture never coheres in a fully satisfying way. In the pit, conductor James Gaffigan was admirably committed to matching the lighthearted tone of the direction and keeping any sense of drag at bay. Kicking things off with a bubbly overture, he frequently returned to exhilarating tempi throughout the night, all assisted by nimble, precise playing from the WNO Orchestra.
Yet these ambitious tempi came at a cost. The ensembles should be just as powerful an engine of Figaro’s overall impact as the arias, but too often the cast here seemed to be trying to keep up, as in a nail-biting Act I finale. At other times, balances between the singers seemed haphazard, as in that gorgeous Act III ensemble after Figaro’s parentage is revealed. In the end there was much to dazzle in this reading, but also a feeling that crucial aspects of the score had received short shrift.
Headliner Amanda Majeski did not disappoint in the Countess’s major showpieces, especially a captivating “Dove sono” in which her colorful, urgent soprano beautifully conveyed the Countess’ frustration and melancholy, eliciting the biggest audience response of the night. There was more to quibble with in the balance of her portrayal, which often felt like a relatively surface-level approach, and in her sometimes cursory contributions in the ensembles.
Joshua Hopkins seemed headed for broad comedy in his initial entrance, serving us the Count as buffoonish lothario, complete with chest hair sight gag. But he promptly dialed this back and turned in one of the more complex portrayals among the leads, finding a comfortable balance between making the farce work and hinting at the darker undercurrents of the Count’s rage, including a penetrating “Hai già vinta.” Hopkins’ pleasant sound is perhaps a weight class lighter than what is really needed for a memorable reading of the Count’s music, but he compensates with intelligent attention to the text.
DC audiences spent a lot of time with this production’s Figaro, Ryan McKinny, as both Donner and Gunther in the Ring. He has been singing more Wagner in the intervening months, taking on Amfortas in that controversial new Bayreuth Parsifal that sounded like it might give the old rabbit cadaver version a run for its money.
McKinny is a charismatic performer, and his confident, virile Figaro often stole the show here, though times he came off as perhaps a bit too glib vis a vis the Count. For instance, the potential cuckold’s rage in Act IV’s “Tutto è disposto…” doesn’t really register if we have a hard time believing Figaro could find the Count threatening in the first place. McKinny’s velvety bass-baritone sounds great in Figaro’s music within a core range, though lower-lying passages proved a challenge.
Lisette Oropesa made for a winning Susanna, though she had trouble vocally distinguishing herself for most of the evening, her clear soprano sometimes losing steam amidst the broader ensemble issues. A gentle, beautifully shaped “Deh vieni…” was a welcome counterpoint in Act IV. Aleksandra Romano brought a warm sound and anxious energy to Cherubino. “Non so più…” was a bit tentative and never really took flight, but “Voi che sapete…” and the charged ensuing Act II interaction with the Countess made a strong impression.
Happily back at WNO after her celebrated turn as Fricka in the Ring, Elizabeth Bishop (Marcellina) was a standout on the crowded stage, easily elevating the comedy while her generous, distinctive voice soared in the ensembles. If you need a reason to open up the cut with Marcellina’s bonus track about goats, Bishop is it. Valeriano Lanchas’ commanding Bartolo cemented their duo as a key asset in this show; a robust “La vendetta” registering as one of the evening’s early musical highlights.
Several of the current Domingo-Cafritz young artists made notable appearances as well, including Ariana Wehr lending a sweet, inviting soprano to Barberina and bass Timothy J. Bruno as a resonant, implacable Antonio.
The production design, originally from Glimmerglass, is a solid example of what one might call “budget period whimsy.” The set, by Benoit Dugardyn, is organized around a colonnade of generic classical columns; flats with trompe l’oeil drapery between the columns define the interior spaces of the first and second acts, and are later removed to very attractive effect to create the more public spaces in the third and fourth acts. Mark McCullough’s lighting contributes a lovely transition from evening to night over the course of the second half.
Garishly colored vaguely 18th century costumes by Myung Hee Cho try very hard to make sure you know you are having fun. Mostly these are par for the course, though occasionally one will cross the line into poor taste, as with the Pepto Bismol peignoir visited upon Majeski in the first half.
Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.