Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" has the most complicated plot in the classical operatic repertoire. It is an ingenious, fast-moving and potentially confusing mixture of disguises, mistaken identities, subtle stratagems and deceptions, intercepted messages, people who hide behind chairs and in closets, overheard conversations and desperate escapes through windows.
Last night in the Kennedy Center Opera House, the Washington Opera gave this convoluted confection a performance outstanding for its clarity. The clarity repeatedly gave point to the opera's wit, and the result was a tumult of laughter such as I have never heard in any other production of this work.
Much of the credit goes to the surtitles that provided a running translation of the text, flashed on a screen above the proscenium. But the stage direction of Jean-Pierre Ponnelle also contributed greatly. In the abstract, considering the way he has tinkered conceptually with some other operas, his "Marriage of Figaro" could have become overloaded with complexities. Instead, he directed a totally straightforward interpretation, meticulous in its working out of small details but content to let the opera speak for itself.
Musically, "The Marriage of Figaro" contains some of Mozart's most vigorously brilliant music, impassioned love songs and ethereally beautiful soprano arias, as well as the "Letter" Duet sung by the Countess and Susanna. There is also ingenious ensemble singing again and again, ideally portraying the mixed emotions and conflicting passions in this most serious of comic operas. And the orchestra comments on the action continually with wit and feeling.
Under the direction of conductor Daniel Barenboim and in the hands of superbly selected singers, the music in this production of "The Marriage of Figaro" was presented not quite flawlessly but with great distinction and tremendous impact.
Marie McLaughlin as Susanna and Susanne Mentzer as Cherubino showed the greatest strength, musically and theatrically, in a cast that had no real weaknesses. McLaughlin's assignment puts a high emphasis on acting ability, though it also calls for a voice of high quality. Susanna spends a good part of the evening in duets, and McLaughlin was a superb partner, at one time or another, to nearly everyone in the cast -- ironic in trading insults with Marcellina, coy with the Count, impatient with Cherubino. And when her big solo came in the last act, she did it complete justice.
Mentzer's voice is both rich and agile. Barenboim set a terrific pace for her in the first-act aria "Non so piu ," but she handled it superbly, giving full emotional expression to an aria that is supposed to be breathless but is seldom as breathless as in this production. The purpose of the pace became clear when the music slowed down suddenly in the last two lines. The pathos of this poor juvenile feeling the first pangs of love, an emotion he does not yet understand, was overwhelming. Ponelle also contributed to the effect by the stage business at this point. As the aria mounts in intensity, Cherubino tries to embrace Susanna; she moves away from him at exactly the right point, and suddenly the music becomes tremendously sad and the words talk about loneliness. This Cherubino is also a fine actress, able to slip easily into the boyish awkwardness the role requires and to get laughs from the audience. She clumps convincingly in riding boots and manages to look uncomfortable and out of place when she is disguised in a dress and hidden in a chorus of peasant girls.
The role of the Countess is more statuesque, and Benita Valente filled its acting requirements easily. Her singing was superbly styled, expressive, clear in diction good in tone. One or two notes sounded not quite off pitch but off the center of the pitch, but she gave a fine performance.
Claudio Desderi is a convincing Figaro, with a voice that is not very large but fine in tone, expressive and used with precision. For some reason, his voice lost a bit of volume at the final climax of "Non piu andrai," just where it is supposed to swell in triumph, on opening night -- but the effect was momentary and is not likely to recur.
One technical problem is unlikely to be repeated -- a few surtitle slides that were slightly mistimed. It did not happen with any crucial lines but, ironically, a line that read "Susanna, slow down" appeared prematurely. Another technical problem is built into the production -- a set design (otherwise excellent) that makes it impossible to see the back of the stage from the extreme sides in Acts 2 and 3. Nothing important happens in the hidden area, but it is annoying. Patrons should be warned that there is only one 20-minute intermission in this "Figaro," which runs almost four hours.
Walton Gro nroos was properly imperious and lustful as the Count and, at the end, satisfactorily repentant. His voice is good and he uses it intelligently. Smaller roles were well filled by Carlos Feller as Bartolo, Shirley Close as Marcellina, Ricardo Cassinelli as Basilio, John Fiorito as Antonio and Nadia Pelle as Barbarina. The chorus had relatively easy work in this production but did it well.
Barenboim paced and balanced the performance with his usual skill, despite the odd tempo in "Non so piu ."