The Florentine’s “Marriage of Figaro”: Glorious, funny, poignantMay 11th, 2013 |
Count Almaviva and the Countess sat in serene dignity at center stage, flanked in perfect symmetry by relatives, friends and servants arranged according to rank at the end of The Marriage of Figaro, which the Florentine Opera opened Friday.
That closing image summed up Mozart’s conservative Enlightenment notion that if high-born and low-born alike would simply do their duty and rein in their appetites just a little, the world would be orderly and all would be happy. The image also crystallized director Candace Evans’ deep insight and consistent vision, which align with the graceful symmetry of Boyd Ostroff’s set. The set represents the Enlightened ideal of social structure, of beauty rising from order. It contrasts with the chaos – comic, in this case – that occurs when the high-born are rapacious and the low-born impertinent.
The ideals are, of course, abstractions; the flesh and blood characters, who stand for all of us, inevitably fall short of them. The Florentine’s marvelous cast fully inhabited these characters and projected them into vast Uihlein Hall, to great comic and poignant effect. Mozart’s music, like Ostroff’s set, represents the ideal, and these singers, conductor Joseph Rescigno and the Milwaukee Symphony Orchestra lived up to it at every turn.
Craig Verm’s voluminous, encompassing bass-baritone, as Almaviva, contrasted tellingly with the more focused, linear baritone of Daniel Belcher’s Figaro. One spoke of confident ownership, the other of needling aggression, qualities that carried into their carriage and locomotion as well. Belcher jabbed out Se vuol ballare (if the Count wants to dance, I’ll play the tune) in sharp staccato, reflecting his determination to outwit his master and foil his plan to bed down Figaro’s intended, Susanna.
Verm worked himself into a privileged, upper-class lather in Vedrò mentr’io sospiro, in which he assures himself that mere servants have no right to happiness while his desires are frustrated. Sounds a little like Donald Trump.
Immediately after, soprano Diana McVey, as the Countess, sang Dove sono. This aria, perhaps my favorite in all of opera, does not usually come on the heels of the Count’s. Evans moved it, I’m sure, in order to directly contrast the Countess’ sincerity and anguish with Almaviva’s monstrous self-justification and self-indulgence. The sweetness and pliancy of McVey’s voice and the sighing quality of her singing made Dove sono do what Mozart meant it to do: Make us love the Countess and give moral weight to an opera that otherwise might be nothing but an amusing sex farce. Usually, singers take the second half of the aria as a fiery, bitter cabaletta; McVey and Rescigno kept it sweet, gentle, nostalgic. She also sang the repeat of the opening verse pianissimo, and the big audience got so very quiet to take it in.
Such thoughtful touches abound in all these performances. For example, I very much liked the way Belcher let his enthusiasm for mocking pain-in-the-neck Cherubino drain away over the course of Non più andrai. The Count has banished his ward to his regiment because of the kid’s endless pursuit of every girl on the estate, including Susanna. Belcher begins by terrifying the boy with visions of military life, then slowly begins to feel bad for a youth so tender he would certainly perish in the merest skirmish. I’ve never seen that before, and Belcher played it wonderfully in both his singing and his acting.
Mezzo Adriana Zabala put on a singing clinic as Cherubino. What a brilliant, clear, utterly controlled voice, unified top to bottom, pristine in pitch and aglow with rich and harmonious overtones. Her phrasing, the opposite of the Countess’ sighing, opened expansively to model her dear boy Cherubino’s runaway enthusiasm, his tangle of love, lust and starry, poetic romanticism. She sang thus amid some of the best and most athletic physical comedy you’ll see in an opera. Her Cherubino darts like the mouse in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.
Soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine makes a disarmingly attractive person of Susanna, the servant girl endowed with endless wit and resourcefulness and bottomless good will — and the sex appeal to make her the principal object of desire of both Figaro and the Count. Guarrine’s Susanna is at once wholesome and seductive — she works her magic on the Count in the way of a woman who’s done this before. Her bright smile and easy, open carriage tell of confidence and receptiveness. Guarrine gets all this done without resorting to any of the sassy-maid opera cliches and poses.
Guarrine’s voice is very much the soprano version of Zabala’s mezzo, unified and rich from top to bottom, big but apparently effortless, generous in breadth, assured in every way. The sheer beauty of it is a blessing upon the ear.
Each of Zabala’s and Guarrine’s arias prompted urgent outbursts of applause, as did McVey’s Dove sono, Verm’s Vedrò mentr’io sospiro and several other numbers by the principals. Alisa Suzanne Jordheim, a Florentine’s resident artist, stood out as Barbarina among the strong cohort of secondary characters.
Rescigno’s pacing, Evans’ clear vision of the opera and an exceptionally alert and committed cast and chorus maintained an electric atmosphere in Uihlein Hall for three full hours.
In the end, after we’d all had a good laugh and as everyone took their places for the happy ending, my eyes dampened. It all looked so Ideal, but the Countess surely already suspects that the Count will be up to his old tricks. We, Mozart, the Count and Barbarina don’t suspect, we know — Barbarina has promised to “love him like a kitten” if he lets her marry Cherubino.
Ah, humanity! Will we ever learn? Of course not.
The Florentine will repeat The Marriage of Figaro, in Italian with English supertitles, at 2:30 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are available online, or at (414) 291-5700, beginning at $35; also at the Marcus Center box office, 414 273-7206.