Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," with all its dazzling wit in music and word, is one of music's incomparable heights. Tuesday night it opened the New York City Opera's annual Kennedy Center visit. Julius Rudel was the conductor, and his genius in guiding a strong cast through the score created and sustained the essential mood all evening.
Sung in English translation of Ruth and Thomas Martin, with some welcome improvements, the text was often easily understood. It was, alas, as often incomprehensible, but that is an old story. The singing was on a uniformly high level, with a fine emphasis on ensemble in both small and large scenes.
From time to time one of the great arias rose above the good routine of the performance. When Faith Esham as Cherubino sang her first two arias, there was a special awareness in the house. Her voice is as ideal for the role as is her appearance, and her art in phrasing is a model. The same kind of unusual beauty was heard from Catherine Malfitano's Susanna in her last act aria in which she exerted a control she had not used so flawlessly earlier.
Samuel Ramey's Figaro gives the opera the necessary vitality in movement and song, especially in his excellent interplay with Malfitano. Martha Sheil sang a Countess of fine quality opposite William Justus whose Count started strongly but lacked the kind of power needed in the third act.
Among the vital smaller roles, Jonathan Green added a brilliant Don Basilio, while Jane Shaulis and Richard McKee contributed valuable portraits as Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo.
The company's strength was clear in the Antonio of Harlan Foss, Don Curzio of Alan Kays, and a Barbarina by Martha Thigpen.
Christian Smith's staging improved as the opera moved into the last two acts. In the first two there were too many moments when the action was either pointless or lacking in essential ingredients. This is not to say that there were not many good things. But "Figaro" requires a special finesse that was often missing.
The sets, costumes and lighting looked well, though it was not possible to forget the Paris Opera production of the same opera in the same house two seasons ago. Thanks in so many ways to Rudel, the evening was a fine opening for the company's visit. Its repetition will be well worth seeing.