in: Reviews

April 30, 2017

Composer and Cast Carry BLO Figaro

by

Count Almaviva (David Pershall, r.) admonishes Countess Almaviva (Nicole Heaston)
(T. Charles Erickson photo)

Boston Lyric Opera’s new Marriage of Figaro arrives disguised as a high-concept production, with the curtain lifting halfway through the overture to reveal a group of stagehands playing cards, ostensibly caught off-guard by the start of the performance. The wings are un-curtained, exposing cast and crew loitering backstage between entrances, exists, and scene changes. Props and sets are unfinished, with bare plywood doors featuring prominently through the first act. Stage director Rosetta Cucchi’s idea to expose theater’s artificiality isn’t particularly original, and was neither revelatory nor especially relevant to Mozart and Da Ponte’s work. It also drew the eye away from the center stage to extraneous interactions among cast and crew at the periphery.

That said, the conceit merely dressed-up an otherwise traditional Figaro (gently updated to a 1950s Italian villa) with an impeccable cast and tight staging of the central action. The production opened Friday night in John Hancock Hall.

If Figaro can fall somewhere on a spectrum between quick-witted schemer and slightly slow-witted dope, Evan Hughes’ portrayal was closer to the latter. Some might prefer a Figaro with a little more gleam in his eye, one who relishes in exposing the Count’s detestable plan, but this more wooden take on the character gave Emily Birsan space to step up as a brilliant Susanna, nearly nudging Figaro out as main character and primary mover of the comic drama. Both leads showed fine, well-matched voices and lithe Mozartean instincts.

Nicole Heaston anchored the production as a model Countess: regal and world-weary. Her “Porgi, amor” was staged by-the-book as a lonely bedroom confessional, while her third-act aria unfolded in an ornate, baroquely painted armchair—a beautiful touch by set designer John Conklin. It was an effective progression for the Countess, literally sitting up and growing a backbone to face her philandering husband. At the end of the aria, Heaston basked in applause without breaking character, staring out at the house with defiant eyes, amplifying the Countess’s dignity and newfound resolve.

David Pershall, cast as a rather young Count, seemed more like a playboy—testing the limits of what he could get away with—than an authoritarian threat to Susanna on her wedding night. One worried less for the servant girl and more for the Countess, who repeatedly found herself on the wrong end of the Count’s rifle, substituting here for the usual sword.

Secondary characters shone in some of the performance’s most memorable moments. Emily Fons played Cherubino, here with cowboy boots and hat, sharing a delightful chemistry with Birsan’s Susanna (in a friendship with a mutually flirtatious edge). David Cushing’s Bartolo and Michelle Trainor’s Marcellina transformed convincingly from adversary to adoring familial when Figaro’s mysterious parentage is revealed. Sara Womble, a BLO Emerging Artist, sang a striking “L’ho perduta,” a doleful blink-and-you-miss-it aria for the peasant girl Barbarina.

The court bids farewell to Figaro and Susanna (in car) as the race off to a honeymoon after their wedding in ( T. Charles Erickson photo)

The orchestra, under David Angus, played with admirable finesse in the theater’s unforgiving, bone-dry acoustic. Brett Hodgdon accompanied recitatives from the fortepiano with mostly straightforward realizations, but—in a humorous touch—opened Act Three with the Nokia ringtone as the Count took a call. (Nokia phones being equally anachronistic for 1786, the 1950s, and 2017—when everyone has an iPhone or Samsung device.)

The production played up the opera’s madcap domestic antics, while downplaying its pointed political and social commentary. In Act Two, Susanna and the Countess read magazines together on the bed, more like girlfriends than servant and master, making their later trading-places seem less transgressive than might otherwise be. It was a surprisingly safe slant, since a more radical, more subversive Figaro could be timely (or conversely, low-hanging fruit) in today’s political climate. Droit du seigneur hardly seems remote today.

Figaro isn’t an opera that needs a high-concept treatment; neither stagehand-revealing metatheater nor self-aware politics is necessary for it to feel fresh and make a mark. BLO’s production inadvertently proved that Mozart’s score, smartly staged with a cast of talented singers, transcends directorial conceit.

The production repeats Wednesday, May 3; Friday, May 5; and Sunday, May 7.

Benjamin Pesetsky is a composer and writer based in Boston.

4 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. I was fortunate enough to hear the dress rehearsal. What a wonderful cast – and the band sounded terrific (though I agree that the acoustic leaves something to be desired)I

    I would characterize (friend and colleague) Brett Hodgdon’s keyboard realizations as anything but straight-foward. Rather, there was a quicksilver response to every nuance of the text, which he (and the Italian-speaking director) obviously know very well – not to mention witty (and deftly executed) musical references too numerous to mention. Bravo!

    Comment by Michael Beattie — May 1, 2017 at 12:06 pm

  2. I certainly meant “straightforward” with the most positive intentions: it was punchy, text-directed, and un-flowery to my ears–though of course there is more going on under-the-hood which a fellow continuo player can appreciate.o

    Comment by Benjamin Pesetsky — May 1, 2017 at 1:27 pm

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful response.

    Comment by Michael Beattie — May 1, 2017 at 2:34 pm

  4. I was at Wednesdays show and I absolutely hated the stage direction and after the 1st act I recognized the brilliance of her direction by osmosis. All I can say about her direction is I was completely wrong and as the opera continued I strangely had the aha moment where her direction becomes accessible and purposeful. She is without any doubt a genius who can in time demystify her intention with the Marriage of Figaro. Singing by all was magnificent and heart rendering. Musical director and orchestra superb. But beyond any doubt the set and direction was progressive and inspiringly sublime. This is from an opera traditionalist who taste and mind was opened just enough to enjoy someone elses brilliant stage perspective.

    Comment by Richard Riley — May 4, 2017 at 12:26 am

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