The Minnesota Opera is ending an adventurous and successful season with a winning production of Mozart’s masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro. In many ways this is a perfect opera, and I’m glad to report that it’s receiving a local staging worthy of its greatness.
Based on a French play by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, itself a masterpiece, the opera tells a tale of class warfare. Figaro, valet to the Count, is engaged to marry Susanna, the Countess’s maid. But the Count is trying to assert his right as nobleman to be the first to sleep with Susanna. Demands to honor an old marriage contract, the astonishing revelation of parentage, and an extended charade with masks, along with the antics of the Countess godson and the horny Cherubino, keep the comedy bubbling along for four long acts.
The sets by Carl Friedrich Oberle are full of rich period detail. The furnishings and costumes could arguably have been more elaborate, but they form a fine backdrop to director Kevin Newbury’s realistic staging. Newbury is a smart director; smart enough to let Mozart remain center stage. He allows the comedy to develop out of the characters, rather than resorting to shtick, which makes for moments of delicious revelation, even in a work so familiar.
Musically, things got off to a rocky start, but improved as the show progressed. Denis Sedov’s Figaro was adequate, but sounded strangulated at times, especially in the beginning. As the Countess, Erin Wall had trouble maintaining the long legato lines of her two sublime arias, though she did add a strong voice to many of the ensembles.
On the plus side was Lauren McNeese’s Cherubino. Her warm voice and pixyish performance were utterly enchanting. Much has been made of a countertenor singing the role in the second cast, but it’s hard to imagine him being more endearing as the oversexed teenager. And since even Beaumarchais instructed the role to be played by a young girl, this remains the ideal choice.
Also an asset was the Count of Carlos Archuleta. His big aria is one of the weakest in the score, but Archuleta made it one of the musical highlights. Christine Brandes’ Susanna who was the true star of this show, however. She produced a rich, European tone that had just the right edge to it, and used it to create a sharp, witty character who is clearly in charge.
Once past the Overture, conductor Robert Wood led a well-paced, well-modulated performance. He kept the comedy moving, while still being responsive to the needs of the singers. He also presided over a shrewd use of the continuo instruments that accompany the recitatives. They added interest without ever being intrusive. The performance also made intelligent use of appoggiaturas (added notes and variants to the printed text) that added several musical surprises.
The surtitles could have been more complete, and the translations more elegant, but this is a common problem with English translations. Still, opening night attracted a much younger audience than is usual for a performance of classical music, and they were presented with a worthy example of why this opera so great.
The Marriage of Figaro runs through May 13 at Ordway Center for the Performing Arts.