The Met in HD: An invigorating, updated ‘Marriage of Figaro’

Susanna and the Count.
Marlis Petersen as Susanna and Peter Mattei as Count Almaviva in Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro." The Count is getting very fresh with Susanna. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

WASHINGTON, October 21, 2014 – Based on a then-controversial 18th century drama by French author, businessman and adventurer Pierre Beaumarchais, Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (“The Marriage of Figaro”) is an operatic comedy of errors, a story involving both real and imagined infidelity that ultimately leads to mutual forgiveness and a happy, if somewhat chastened ending.

“Figaro” has been an audience favorite almost since it’s premiere, which is likely why the New York Metropolitan Opera is giving it a generously long run at the Lincoln Center. This past Saturday, this classic Mozartian confection became the second live HD simulcast of the year, beamed to movie theater attendees across the globe.

Saturday’s performance, under the baton of music director James Levine, was an unusual new production by Richard Eyre, who also directed an outstanding cast, including Ildar Abdrazakov, Marlis Petersen, Amanda Majeski and Peter Mattei.

Eyre refreshed this production by moving the story into a 1930s setting inspired by director Jean Renoir’s controversial but ultimately classic film “The Rules of the Game.” That film, it just so happens, was supposed to have been inspired by the original Beaumarchais play, bringing everything full circle.

Rob Howell costuming and sets seemed authentically 1930s, right down to the table settings. What seemed a little odd, however, was the design of the multi-roomed mansion in which the opera is set. Built on a large, rotating platform, allowing almost instantaneous room and scene changes, the structure itself is a tall, monotonous faux building constructed entirely of wood and/or castings whose walls, severely decorated not with artwork but with Islamic, Middle Eastern style abstract designs.

Mr. Howell’s choice of this design in politically ambiguous 2014 was more than a bit mystifying, given the opera’s otherwise grand and party-like atmosphere. But we’ll leave the potential symbolism to those who dwell on such things.

For the uninitiated, Mozart’s opera is at once a comic love story and a mild but telling criticism (via Beaumarchais) of the haughty and often outright callous European aristocracy of the time.

Cherubino and Susanna.
Now it’s hormone-mad teenager Cherubino (Isabel Leonard) who’s putting the moves on Marlis Petersen;s Susanna. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

As the curtain opens on this production, we learn that Count Almaviva has designs on Susanna, the Countess Rosina’s maidservant and soon-to-be wife of the Count’s valet, the wily Figaro. Formerly famed as the “Barber of Seville” (and later made even more famous via Rossini’s eponymous opera), Figaro had previously helped the Count win Rosina’s hand.

Unfortunately, among the upper classes, gratitude toward the peasantry only goes so far—not only in Mozart’s time but, sadly, in our own.

A serial philanderer, the count has already tired of his lovely wife and is currently on the lookout for fresh game. To keep Susanna available for himself, the Count schemes to force Figaro’s marriage to the irritating—and much older—Marcellina.

Meanwhile, in a side-plot, hormone-mad teenage boy, Cherubino, madly infatuated with the Countess, keeps materializing at just the wrong time to complicate matters even further.

In the end, the always-alert Figaro and Susanna plot with the long-suffering Countess to bring their boss’s extracurricular activities to an end, allowing Figaro’s marriage to take place.

The Met’s first-rate cast of outstanding singers made this production of Mozart’s often over-performed masterpiece fresh and new again.

As Figaro, Ildar Abdrazakov—who impressed last year in the Met’s “Prince Igor”—seemed relaxed, primed, and in his element, a real natural for the part, to which he lent his rich bass-baritone voice and near-perfect phrasing.

As Susanna, Figaro’s intended, soprano Marlis Petersen proved a cooler yet still delightful counterpart to Mr. Abdrazakov’s more antic character. Although she interpreted her role with perhaps a touch too much elegance for a servant, that may have been intentional, in keeping with this production’s more contemporary setting.

Peter Mattei’s Count struck the appropriate balance for this central character. Almaviva is an impetuous tyrant on one hand. Yet he’s enough of a blunderer that he misses the details and becomes the butt of the ultimate joke. As a result, anyone who sings the role must come across as haughty and self-important, but also self-deprecating enough to admit defeat and accept the new order of things.

Main cast, "Marriage of Figaro."
Amanda Majeski as Countess Almaviva, Marlis Petersen as Susanna, Ildar Abdrazakov as Figaro, and Peter Mattei as Count Almaviva in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.” Richard Eyre’s new production of the opera, conducted by James Levine. (Credit: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

In all of this and more, Mr. Mattei excels, particularly when he gives vent to the Count’s inner unpleasantness in one of the most exciting renditions of the classic aria, “Hai già vinta la causa,” that we have heard in many a production of “Figaro.”

But perhaps the biggest surprise in this production’s starring quartet was soprano Amanda Majeski. Projecting royalty and vulnerability in equal measure, Ms. Majeski seemed the most realistically human of these four tumultuous characters.

Better yet, her warm, lyric soprano voice boasted surprising support and power. Added to an often charming, always moving delivery and an exquisite sense of phrasing, Ms. Majeski’s performance in particular make this production a very special one indeed, an observation clearly borne out in the Countess’ famous aria, “Dove sono,” which brought tears to many an eye, even for those who may have been seeing “Figaro” for the twentieth time.

Rounding out the major roles, Isabel Leonard was remarkably funny, impulsive and awkward in the classic trouser role of the hormone-driven teenager Cherubino. But her wondrously pure and liquid voice was what really sealed the deal.

Finally, in the tiny but key role of Barbarina—Cherubino’s girlfriend when he’s not casting eyes elsewhere—Ying Fang sang the role of Barbarina with just the right dash of spunk and irreverence. You couldn’t have asked for more.

Mr. Eyre’s unobtrusive direction was nicely executed for the most part, right down to placing his singers in such a way to accommodate the occasionally confusing acoustics caused by the set’s ornate but open design.

And finally, it was good to see Maestro Levine once again in the pit. The Met orchestra, as always, performed well for him, adding a richness to the sound that Mozart could only have dreamed of. When combined with the excellence of the singing, the audience easily got lost in the magic of it all in spite of having heard this music so many times before.

Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars).

The Met’s live HD simulcast of “The Marriage of Figaro” was recorded and will be aired again at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, October 22 at most movie theaters that hosted Saturday’s performance. For tickets and information, visit the Met’s website for ticket prices and to access lists of local participating theaters near you.

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Terry Ponick
Biographical Note: Dateline Award-winning music and theater critic for The Connection Newspapers and the Reston-Fairfax Times, Terry was the music critic for the Washington Times print edition (1994-2010) and online Communities (2010-2014). Since 2014, he has been the Business and Entertainment Editor for Communities Digital News (CDN). A former stockbroker and a writer and editor with many interests, he served as editor under contract from the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and continues to write on science and business topics. He is a graduate of Georgetown University (BA, MA) and the University of South Carolina where he was awarded a Ph.D. in English and American Literature and co-founded one of the earliest Writing Labs in the country. Twitter: @terryp17