Tagged: The Marriage of Figaro

On The Countess

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.
Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

Last night I had the opportunity to see Acts III and IV of Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro after volunteering at the subscription renewal tables. I realized that even if I only ever wrote about The Marriage of Figaro on this blog, I’d probably never run out of material. And soon, of course, I will be writing about other operas (next up: Idomeneo) but I’d really like to linger a little longer on this subject.

The way I see it, one’s concept of Figaro – what kind of opera is it? What’s important about it? What does it have to say? – really hinges on the figure of La Contessa. Even within the confines of this single opera, she’s an incredibly complex character, and when you expand your frame of reference to include the other two plays in Beaumarchais’ trilogy and the operas they inspired (the first of which – The Barber of Seville – is very familiar to opera fans, the third – The Guilty Mother – much less so), things get even more interesting.

How does she fit within the paradigm of lighthearted-but-politically-and-emotionally-charged farce? First, she is undeniably a full participant in the comedy. To treat her as the “straight man”, at a regal remove from the hijinks, is to do her a disservice. In The Barber of Seville, she’s as much an engineer as Figaro of the comedic schemes; The moment when she produces the letter Figaro has just been urging her to write (Un biglietto? … Eccolo qua) is possibly my favourite moment in that opera. In The Marriage of Figaro, Figaro himself is pretty ineffectual and it’s the great lady herself who ultimately brings her husband in line. In the scenes with Cherubino she sparkles with mischief, an intelligent, worldly woman who knows exactly how to torment a naive young boy.

On the other hand, in The Marriage of Figaro she’s the only character who seems to be experiencing any sort of long-term anguish (apart from sexual frustration). Figaro’s feelings of betrayal in Act IV, while genuine and movingly expressed, are short-lived and based on a misunderstanding that is easily resolved. For the Countess, however, both of her arias (Porgi, amor and Dove sono) are sorrowful, expressing profound disillusionment with love and marital happiness. They are also absolutely necessary to the drama, and must be taken seriously if Contessa, perdonothe opera’s final moment of forgiveness and reconciliation - is to have any emotional impact whatsoever.

By the time we see her in The Marriage of Figaro, she can hear about her husband making a pass at her best friend without sobbing or flying into a rage in grand operatic style. Five years before, perhaps the first couple of times, she would have done those things. But she’s been entirely worn out. You can hear this, in Porgi, amor – the long ascending line on lascia, the let in the phrase let me die. She longs for release, relief, rest. And she still loves him!

So, how do you play the Countess? I recall seeing one Figaro on DVD a while ago that depicted her as the victim of physical abuse by the Count. This seems to me to be incorrect. Not that it wouldn’t be historically accurate – I’m sure plenty of 18th century Countesses were slapped around by their Counts – but it’s wrong for Figaro, which is first and foremost a comedy. This heavy-handed treatment seems to me to be symptomatic of the changing narrative about Mozart: starting with the early narrative of the perfect prodigy, composer of beautiful but somewhat sterile music; continuing to Shaffer’s Amadeus, the vulgar, dirty-minded boy with a direct line from God to his pen, unequal to his music; and then the current attempts to correct both of those narratives by emphasizing how hardworking and thoughtful Mozart actually was, and how much emotional richness his music actually contains. A Figaro that focuses excessively on the class and gender politics constitutes an effort to convince the audience that Mozart! Is! Serious!, and reveals the consuming fear of irrelevance that seems to continually plague the opera world.

And yes, Mozart is serious. And I’m as much in favour of ferreting out hidden subtexts as any self-respecting amateur critic must be. But, the truth is that The Marriage of Figaro really doesn’t need to be propped up the way that, say, Il Trovatore sometimes does. It works just fine on its own – marvelously, in fact. It’s funny, it has no longeurs, and it carries no problematic cultural baggage like Cosi fan Tutte or the Ring Cycle. The Countess can be sad and she can sparkle, just the way she does on the page and at the piano. And this is mostly how Opera Atelier approaches it – as a comedy that requires no gimmicks, where movement can be guided by the music and the audience doesn’t need to be browbeaten into laughing at the jokes.

I warmed up considerably to Peggy Kriha Dye’s performance upon a second viewing (although I still think Canzonetta sull’aria was way too fast). She moves with grace and agility, and is immediately believable as an astute noblewoman. During Dove sono she allowed her voice to break at strategic points, to give the impression of being on the point of tears, and the transition from sorrow to anticipated triumph was managed perfectly – with help from a few clear, very powerful high notes. She gives the impression of a great force just waiting to be unleashed. And Piu dolce io sono came, as it should, like the unfolding of a flower, or the exhale after a three-hour inhale.

An interesting choice was made in the final tableau, which showed the Countess in Cherubino’s arms with the other characters pointing and reacting with shock. This looks ahead, of course, to Beaumarchais’ third play, The Guilty Mother, that sees the Countess pregnant with Cherubino’s child after an impulsive one night stand. I like that Figaro’s “happy ending” is actually somewhat compromised – it gives me more fodder to ruminate endlessly on it.

Opera Atelier’s Marriage of Figaro – Review

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

I care a lot about The Marriage of Figaro. I used to get into very heated arguments with the other classical music person in my high school, who was obsessed with Prokofiev. Mozart is bland and predictable, he said, with too narrow an emotional range. This point of view baffled and vexed me, and when I marshaled my counter-arguments in defense of Mozart’s beauty, complexity, and unparallelled understanding of drama, Figaro was never far from my mind.

In my head there is an ideal Figaro performance, composed of all the best parts of all the various incarnations I’ve heard and seen, along with the (admittedly fuzzy) images in my head. I was looking forward to this production very much, and was worried that I’d be disappointed by even minor differences from my own personal Ideal Figaro. After seeing it, it’s safe to say that this production comes closer to my ideal than any other I’ve seen, by quite a wide margin – but of course that makes the shortfalls that much more maddening.

A reasonable person can evaluate a Figaro production by roughly three criteria: First, is it funny? Second, is it sexy? Third and most important, is it beautiful?

First, humour. I wasn’t entirely sold on the English translation, but there’s absolutely no question that using it makes the opera funnier. There’s nothing separating the audience from the jokes, the timing is never wrong, and hearing an actor deliver a joke is always much better than reading it on a surtitle. Usually Figaro’s comic scenes get an obligatory, anemic chuckle from an audience that’s expecting all the surprises; this time, the comic possibilities were exploited to the fullest and the evening was full of genuine laughs.

Another element where Opera Atelier consistently stands head and shoulders above other opera companies is in stage movement. Too often, a lumpen park-and-bark acting style makes even the freshest, most voluptuous operas seem flat and dowdy on stage. Here, every turn of the head and swing of the arm appeared to have been precisely choreographed to serve the drama. Back in January, a fascinating New York Times piece on dance in opera bemoaned how infrequently stage movement aligns with the music in operatic performance, explaining that “much of the best choreography helps us to hear the music better”. The stage movement in this production was deliciously responsive to the music, and aided the comedy considerably.

Second, sex. Truthfully, I look for this in just about every opera – Tosca, Don Giovanni, and Rosenkavailer are always a little disappointing without a generous amount of sexual tension. Opera Atelier’s promotional poster for Figaro featured a mostly-undressed, beautiful man lying supine on a bed. As expected, no problems here.

It’s in the third requirement – beauty – where I hit against those maddening slight shortcomings. My most serious complaint was with the tempi, which were consistently on the very brisk side, and sometimes felt overwhelming when combined with the frenetic action. Porgi, Amor particularly suffered from being hurried along, making the Countess seem at times more like a Real Housewife than a great lady in pain. In Acts III and IV, where the plot twists pile up quickly and relentlessly, I was longing for the moment of repose that Canzonetta sull’aria would have provided had it been given more room to breathe. Though the singing was consistently excellent – I particularly enjoyed Carla Huhtanen as Susanna and Wallis Giunta as Cherubino – the ensembles sometimes sounded a bit muddy.

I like my Countesses a little sadder and nobler than in this incarnation. I also wish that pathos had been chosen over comedy a bit more often – Figaro gives lots of opportunities to choose one or the other, and the ideal production maintains a balance of the two. However, seeing certain lines played for laughs, when I was accustomed to thinking of them as serious, expands my understanding of the opera rather than interfering with it.

These are, of course, minor complaints. This Figaro is full of interesting details and absolutely bursting with intelligence, wit, style, and vivid musicality. Even though the Figaro in my head would have lingered longer over the pauses, I suspect it will be a long time before I see anything that comes closer.

Alternative Opinions:

Eye Weekly: “OA’s new production will likely please any newcomer to this opera. Others, however, may wish Pynkoski had let the singers focus more on Mozart’s wit than on the clichés of farce.”

Toronto Star: “From the orchestra, to the singing, the staging and the costumes, here is a piece of musical theatre where nothing has been left to chance.”

The Globe and Mail: “This wonderful merging of text and music rests squarely with the talents of director Marshall Pynkoski and conductor David Fallis. The always meticulous Pynkoski has ensured that the opera is directed to within an inch of its life.”

NOW: “Opera Atelier’s not known for its subtle takes on baroque opera, but even by its standards, this new production of The Marriage Of Figaro is over-the-top broad. The only thing that’s missing is a whoopee cushion.”

Canoe – JAM!: “The Marriage of Figaro is not exactly a marriage made in heaven. But a Marriage of Figaro made by Opera Atelier can come pretty close — especially if your idea of heaven is fairly dripping with beautiful music, lavish sets and gorgeous costumes.”

Wine and Cheese with Opera Atelier

I’ve just returned from Opera Atelier’s subscriber event toasting the upcoming 25th anniversary season. Since I attended the event alone, there was little for me to do at first besides renew my subscription, consume the consumables, and slink around suspiciously. But the afternoon took a turn for the delightful when the performances began, featuring two scenes (one vocal and one ballet) from The Marriage of Figaro.

Co-Artistic Director Marshall Pynkoski discussed Opera Atelier’s decision to perform Figaro in English, an issue he has previously discussed on the OA blog. Their production of Die Entführung aus dem Serail took a similar approach, with the dialog in English and the arias in German. I think it’s certainly true that surtitles harm the comedy – the mismatched timing of the singer’s delivery and the appearance of the surtitle often results in jokes that don’t quite work, especially in patter songs. The only downside of performing comedy in translation – and one of the fundamental difficulties of opera as a form, in my opinion – is that the words, when sung in operatic style, can often be difficult to make out. I’ve seen productions that try to solve this issue by performing in English translation and also providing surtitles, which can have the effect of highlighting the problem rather than resolving it. Perhaps this will be less of an issue in the intimate Elgin Theatre, where subtleties of vocal inflection (not to mention facial movements) are much easier to pick up.

I was also very pleased to have the opportunity to briefly meet both Marshall Pynkoski himself and the stylish Nancy Hitzig, the Manager of Education and Marketing who left a very kind comment on my last entry. My fledgling blog has a tiny readership, but already it’s making being an opera lover even more interesting!