Peter Gelb, the Metropolitan Opera’s general manager, had a rough summer. In the course of contentious and public contract negotiations with his company’s unionized employees (summarized in these pages on Sunday), the artistic value of his tenure was called into question. The new productions on his watch, the unions said, were needlessly big and expensive, and didn’t go over well with the press or at the box office.
What the Met needed for Monday’s season opener, therefore, was a large-scale production that could show the advantages of the Met’s grand scale, withstand multiple viewings and captivate the audience. And the company was trying to do this with Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro), a long and intimate opera that isn’t a huge crowd-pleaser and, in this production, didn’t feature any major stars. It didn’t look promising.
Yet, by and large, the Met pulled it off.
Doubts lingered even at the start, at the sight of the uncurtained stage filled with huge metallic cylinders (by Rob Howell) delineating rooms in Count Almaviva’s palace. As the overture began, the stage filled with people, and the turntable began to rotate to unpack a cinematic parade of vignettes that seemed larger than one turntable could support: a gardener at work, the Countess sleeping, the Count emerging from an assignation with one of his maids. Richard Eyre, the director, moved the action to a Downton-Abbey-like world, circa the 1930s or early ’40s. The opulence and theatrical sleight-of-hand reflected on the Met’s world as well as the Count’s: a world that still invests the resources and staffing to create a more elaborate set than is strictly needed.
Met productions tend to be controversial, and not everyone will share my enthusiasm for this one. Vocally, it wasn’t a night for the history books, although it was anchored by some capable singers who created the kind of tight ensemble this opera requires. As Susanna, one of the longest roles in the repertoire, Marlis Petersen was a tall, energetic, bright-voiced presence; Peter Mattei, despite running out of steam at the end of one aria, was a stalwart and mellifluous Count Almaviva. And Ildar Abdrazakov threw himself into Figaro, pushing up his voice enough that the low notes were muted but was visibly enjoying himself.
Eyre, however, made the most of what he had, creating well-rounded characters so that the story-telling didn’t flag, even if the arias sometimes did. Take Isabel Leonard: Though her high, bright mezzo was somewhat anodyne, she had fun embodying the teenage boy Cherubino. Or take the smaller roles, all of which were cast and played with care. John Del Carlo and Susanne Mentzer as Doctor Bartolo and Marcellina (who wants to marry Figaro herself) helped make the often tedious scene in which they learn they are Figaro’s long-lost parents actually amusing, even touching; while Greg Fedderly, as the music teacher Don Basilio, offered a suave, oily, gossipy persona. Ying Fang, making her company debut as Barbarina, had a limpidity and fullness to her voice that most of the other female singers lacked.
The American soprano Amanda Majeski had the challenge of making her Met debut on opening night in the prominent role of the Countess, which starts off with a solo aria. James Levine, in the pit, helped bridge over the sometimes uneven rhythms of her first-night jitters; her voice was a little shrill and fluttery, but she gained confidence as the evening went on, and her second and more difficult aria, “Dove sono,” was much better than the first. She also got to wear some drop-dead outfits that channelled Katharine Hepburn in “The Philadelphia Story.”
Levine still exudes the aura of returned paterfamilias, conducting from a chair, taking his bow from the pit rather than the stage, but offering his wonted energy and nuance and tempo variations as he guided the singers through some brisk recitativos — stretches of sung dialogue — and some rather slow arias. He was backed up by Robert Morrison on keyboard, accompanying the récits with wit and flair.
At the least, this production returns the discussion of the Met squarely to the artistic realm where it belongs. The flames of the next debate were fanned by several hundred vocal protesters in front of Lincoln Center before the show began, up in arms because in October the Met is presenting John Adams’s 1991 opera “The Death of Klinghoffer,” which has long been dogged by spurious accusations of anti-Semitism. “Terrorism and tenors don’t mix” read the signs, brandished by people sporting yellow stars. Fasten your seat belts.
“Le nozze di Figaro” will be broadcast live in HD to movie theaters Oct. 18.