In less than a week, the Vienna State Opera has traveled an emotional circuit as demanding as its transatlantic journey. Leonard Bernstein began the trip with a "Fidelio" of triumphant glory. Zubin Mehta moved the company on to a "Salome" of torrential passion. Tuesday evening Karl Boehm added a "Figaro" of transcendent beauty.
So loving, so faithful and so balanced was Boehm's direction that Mozart himself seemed to be in the Opera House, generating the music on the spot. Repeatedly, the listener was struck anew by the unfailing grace and inventiveness of the opera. Considering how frequently "The Marriage of Figaro" is heard, Boehm's achievement is all the more remarkable.
A major factor in the freshness of the production was Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's staging, which reflected a thorough reworking of the entire story to heighten both its humor and its humanity. Through shifts in the angle of staging or different action sequences, Ponnelle introduced surprises into the familiar struggle of the servants Susanna and Figaro to marry before their master the count could assert his feudal sexual rights.
When the curtain rose for the opening duet, only Susanna was on stage. Figaro came running in with a mattress which he dropped onto their future marriage bed, just in time to begin his counting. It was the mattress, rather than the room, that Figaro measured. Then he puckishly measured Susanna to be sure she would fit the bed. The innovation added a pert comic touch and, at the same time, underlined the contrast between the pair's warm, easy relationship and the artificiality of the count and countess. p
The ironic undertone of the opera was brilliantly caught in the staging of the march that closes the third act. Facing directly out to the audience and dominating the stage, the servants danced a highly stylized minuet -- its suppressed vitality delicately mocking the aristocratic form. The count and countess viewed the dance from downstage, seated with their backs to the hall, their diminishing power subtly suggested by their lesser position in the tableau. Significantly, in the final act of the opera -- at the moment the count goes down upon his knee for forgiveness -- his servants rise as one.
Ponnelle's sets were handsome and, like his direction, designed to sharpen the drama. The double level of the first-act set echoed the social structure -- Susanna and Figaro will literally as well as figuratively live under their masters -- and stressed the threat of the count coming from above. The stairs connecting the two levels enlarged comic possibilites, visually spicing the tension as the count and Cherubino attempted to hide from unexpected visitors.
The story glory of "The Marriage of Figaro" lies in the ensembles that Mozart exploits superbly to reveal character. It would be difficult to imagine more sensitive ensemble singing or a greater commitment to the total drama than the Vienna State Opera cast offered. The overall vocal and dramatic level was amazingly high. Lucia Popp's Susanna was a visual and aural delight. Both she and Gundula Janowitz, who sang the countess role, exhibited extraordinary control, shaping lovely lines with the most refined dynamic sense. The warmth and delicacy of their letter duet produced one of the evening's exquisite moments.
Projecting the Italian libretto with exceptional clarity, baritone Walter Berry created a vigorous and engaging Figaro. His sense of theatrical timing was splendid, matched by a wide range of vocal colors to suit Figaro's various moods. Baritone Hans Helm, by the strength of his physical presence and the fullness of his voice, made a suitably formidable opponent as Count Almaviva. Mezzo-soprano Trudeliese Schmidt handled quite convincingly the vocal and dramatic demands of her "trousers role" as Cherubino.
The other characters were equally well drawn, both theatrically and vocally, with many fine details. Tenor Heinz Zednik's portrait of the groveling, scheming Basilio was a particular gem.