Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," one of the most nearly perfect works in the operatic repertoire, shows its full value tonight on PBS (8 p.m., Channel 26 and Maryland Public TV; simulcast on WETA and WBJC-FM). The Metropolitan Opera performance, videotaped live last Dec. 14, is one of the best that company has ever brought to the television screen.
"Figaro" demands (besides a large and strong supporting cast) five voices of extraordinary quality in the leading roles. These singers must have not only the right natural equipment, but also aptitude and training for the special Mozart style, a gift for ensemble singing, and acting ability -- in comedy, which ultimately makes more stringent demands than tragedy.
All these needs are filled superbly by an all-star cast: Ruggero Raimondi as Figaro, Kathleen Battle as Susanna, Thomas Allen and Carol Vaness (both making their Met TV debuts) as the Count and Countess and Frederica von Stade as an irrepressibly boyish Cherubino. All give performances of the highest quality, but Allen may be the most impressive in terms of what he does with the available material.
Conductor James Levine's mastery of Mozartean style is total, and director Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, aided by outstanding camera work, gives the production strong theatrical impact. His work here is less controversial than it has been in some productions, essentially similar to the Ponnelle "Figaro" produced here by the Washington Opera.
"The Marriage of Figaro" is a comedy of extraordinary depth and complexity. Its themes include not only love in all forms (conjugal, adolescent, parental, adulterous, frustrated, jealous and paranoid, to name a few) but power and its abuse, alienation and reconciliation, the relations of social classes and the dynamics of marriage. Mozart's music, Ponnelle's direction and an outstanding performance by a fine cast all combine to present this depth and complexity with extraordinary clarity and impact.