WASHINGTON, September 23, 2016 – The Washington National Opera opened its 2016-2017 season in the Kennedy Center’s Opera House Thursday evening with a winning performance of Mozart’s forever-popular comic opera, “The Marriage of Figaro” (“Le Nozze di Figaro”). Predictably, opening night had its issues, though most were due to extraneous circumstances beyond WNO’s control.
Traffic and parking problems were largely to blame for some of this opening night chaos. Given Metro’s never ending effort to rebuild a rail system not properly maintained since the 1970s, more people are on the road again, jamming routes into and out of the District even worse than usual.
Equally problematic were the draconian, quasi-presidential security arrangements over at the Concert Hall, where the self-important Yusuf Islam (the entertainer formerly known as Cat Stevens) was set to perform. Yusuf’s security requirements and demands apparently exceeded those required by the President or by most visiting potentates to the Kennedy Center.
The traffic, the crowds, the parking and the Yusuf foyer security gates combined to back things up so badly that, after starting nearly 15 minutes late, Thursday’s performance of “Marriage of Figaro” was interrupted not once but twice with a pair of understandably unavoidable late-seating invasions—perhaps as many as 400, as estimated by WNO’s artistic director Francesca Zambello during her opening remarks.
No fault to the Kennedy Center, which had timed these unfortunate but necessary late seatings judiciously. But the situation was disruptive nonetheless, as countless late arrivals buzzed and chattered during the already unfolding first act, like they were shuffling in late to a popcorn movie matinee during the trailers.
While such behavior was incredibly annoying to those already seated and getting involved with Act I, it’s hard to gauge how much it affected the performance on stage. The soloists were hard to hear during the act’s opening moments, though that was perhaps due more to the lush, Romantic sweep of the WNO Orchestra under the baton of James Gaffigan than to the late arrivals.
Fortunately, after things settled down into operatic normalcy, the orchestra recalibrated, the singers kicked the volume up a notch, and, for the rest of the evening, a thoroughly enjoyable “Marriage of Figaro” materialized, led by an attractive young cast that included a trio of singers we heard recently the Santa Fe Opera.
“Marriage of Figaro” takes place later in the fictional Figaro’s chronology than Rossini’s later composed but equally popular “Barber of Seville.” In Mozart’s comic opera, Count Almaviva (baritone Joshua Hopkins), has tired of his charming wife, the Countess Rosina (soprano Amanda Majeski), whom Figaro earlier had helped the count to win. The Count develops an eye for every female he can find, particularly the comely Susanna (soprano Lisette Oropesa), Figaro’s intended bride. To pry her away from his manservant, the Count enlists the help of his underlings to hatch a nefarious plot.
Meanwhile, he and everyone else in the cast must deal with the youthful, oversexed page, Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano in a trouser role), whose raging teenage hormones make his own amorous pursuits as troublesome as the Count’s. The entire farce unwinds in Act IV in a nighttime garden encounter of farcical proportions.
Baritones Ryan McKinny (Figaro)—who impressed us two summers ago as an unearthly Jochanaan in Santa Fed Opera’s Freudian interpretation of Richard Strauss’ “Salome”—and Joshua Hopkins (Almaviva)—who ably portrayed the hapless poet Olivier in this summer’s production of Strauss’ “Capriccio” by the same company—were generally in fine form in this very different pair of roles.
Read also: Santa Fe Opera’s ‘Salome’: Shock and awe
After losing points to the orchestra early in “Figaro’s” round one, Mr. McKinny’s appealingly airy approach to Mozart’s comic hero eventually prevailed and won out, primarily due to his supple vocal approach and effortless comic chops.
While a bit of a cypher at times in his portrayal of the villainous but put-upon Almaviva, Mr. Hopkins offered a more unpleasant Count than we generally prefer, though his darker vocal shading of this role provided an interesting counterpoint to the lighter characters portrayed by Mr. McKinny and Ms. Oropesa (Susanna).
Regarding Ms. Oropesa, congratulations are in order for one of the brighter, better-informed renditions of Susanna we’ve had the privilege to hear. In many respects, “Figaro” is more Susanna’s opera than it is a starring vehicle for the title character, given the amount of beautiful and challenging music Mozart gives her to sing.
Ms. Oropesa made this notable role her very own, deftly and intelligently adapting to every negative plot twist with a fine sense of theater and with a bright, sunny soprano that matched the positive attitude of Mr. McKinny’s Figaro.
Mezzo-soprano Aleksandra Romano was charmingly gawky and awkward as the hormone-driven Cherubino, one of Mozart’s most amusing characters and one who inevitably manages to appear at precisely the wrong time in any given scene. With her lively voice, punctuated by impulsive outbursts of surprising power, Ms. Romano scored a hit with the audience in Mozart’s amusing trouser role.
But for us, the surprise of the evening was the poised, elegant and moving performance of soprano Amanda Majeski in the key role of the Countess Rosina, once the great love of Almaviva’s life but now neglected by him as he restlessly pursues other amorous asides. Tragic yet intelligent, focused and determined—not unlike her lady’s maid Susanna—Rosina is the emotional heart of Mozart’s opera, and she gets to sing some of this opera’s loveliest music.
In Santa Fe Opera’s production of Strauss’ “Capriccio” this summer, we confess to having been a bit less than enthusiastic about Ms. Majeski’s interpretation of the Countess, so we weren’t quite sure what to expect in WNO’s “Figaro.” Happily, what we saw and heard Thursday, was a picture-perfect Rosina, willowy, dignified, yet deeply emotional and still eager to reclaim her lost love.
Vocally, Ms. Majeski’s interpretation was warm, loving, and well-rounded, yet also gripping. She sinuously intertwined her voice with Mozart’s lovely music and Da Ponte’s beautiful libretto, creating a flesh-and-blood character that instantly grabbed and held the audience’s heart. Brava!
While the principals dominate “Marriage of Figaro,” neither the story nor the opera itself can work without its secondary cast of villains and bumblers who contribute to this opera’s “Tom Jones” style plot.
First and foremost, we have the cranky, self-important Dr. Bartolo, sung here by bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas. Attired in this production in a natty, strutting peacock outfit topped off by one of the funniest and fussiest wigs ever, Mr. Lanchas lent his character the most amusing buffo appeal. Unfortunately, from a vocal standpoint, we could rarely hear what he was singing, perhaps an opening night issue to be solved in later performances.
Local favorite, mezzo-soprano Elizabeth Bishop—who WNO fans will remember for her turn as Wotan’s acid-tipped, long suffering wife Fricka in the company’s recent “Ring” Cycle—brought an deliciously different point of view to the aging and vengeful Marcellina, the older woman determined to derail Figaro’s nuptials and nab the former Barber of Seville for herself.
Ms. Bishop presents Marcellina as grasping and unpleasant to be sure. But thankfully, she doesn’t come across as the Wicked Witch of the West as some mezzo-sopranos do when taking on this role. This makes it easier for us to believe her later change of heart (no spoilers here), while it also enables Ms. Bishop to give us two different sides of this character from a vocal standpoint: one that’s desperate and insistent, the other warm-hearted and maternal.
Moving along, we found tenor Keith Jameson to be a funny, irritatingly oily Don Basilio; soprano Ariana Wehr to be an amusingly ephemeral, scatterbrained Barbarina; and bass Timothy Bruno to be marvelously obtuse in his brief but pivotal role of Antonio, the drunken gardener. Tenor Rexford Tester also did well in his brief turn as Don Curzio.
The WNO chorus seemed a bit disorganized, at least during this opening night performance. Entrances and exits were haphazard, and in Mozart’s brief but festive choral numbers, a necessary musical mind-meld sometimes eluded chorus and orchestra. On the plus side, the often puckish characterizations of the individual “flower girls” were priceless.
The WNO orchestra sounded fine throughout, again save for the overwhelming volume that took out the singers earlier in the first act.
Other pluses for this new WNO production of “Marriage of Figaro” included its rather severe yet nicely geometric neoclassical sets by Benoit Dugardyn, which included a funny suite of wandering, “Birnham Wood” topiaries in the finale; and its wildly Harlequin-like yet (mostly) period-authentic costumes designed by Myung Hee Cho.
Rating: *** (Three out of four stars)
Washington National Opera’s “The Marriage of Figaro” continues at the Kennedy Center’s Opera House through October 2, 2016. Special performances include the company’s annual “Opera in the Outfield” simulcast at Washington Nationals Park (Saturday, September 24) and a special, bargain-priced performance of the opera featuring the talents of the current up-and-coming singers of WNO’s Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program.
For tickets and information, check out WNO’s “Marriage of Figaro” page at the Kennedy Center’s website.