Review: Kwiecien, Pisaroni Lead Youthful “Figaro” Ensemble in Santa Fe – August 13, 2008

Santa Fe Opera’s retiring General Director Richard Gaddes, and his predecessor, the late John Crosby, deserved their reputations for identifying operatic singers who are in early career and yet have the vocal and histrionic abilities predictive of international success. Among the Santa Fe “apprentice singers” who achieved such success are Sherrill Milnes, James Morris, Neil Shicoff, Joyce di Donato, and William Burden.

The famously loyal Santa Fe Opera audiences trust the company’s casting choices, and so commit to the operas of each summer’s festival, regardless of whether they have previous familiarity with the performing artists in the announced casts.

[Below: Mariusz Kwiecien as Count Almaviva; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” is an opera particularly well-suited to displaying the talents of young singers of the first rank, and the assembled Santa Fe Opera cast was comprised of artists whose debuts singing important roles (in most cases any roles) date from the 21st century.

In fact, the only veteran in the Santa Fe cast was the Doctor Bartolo, English basso Gwynne Howell, whom Kurt Herbert Adler first brought to the San Francisco Opera in 1978, and who has been a significant presence at Covent Garden and other major British opera companies for decades.

Of the principals, Mariusz Kwiecien, the Count Almaviva, is the most recognized name internationally, yet still is in the process of trying out each of the roles that will comprise his core repertoire during his first career decade.

Just last summer, Luca Pisaroni was performing the role of Masetto to Kwiecien’s Don Giovanni in San Francisco. (See the review at: Kwiecien Excels in McVicar’s Dark Side “Don Giovanni” – S. F. June 2, 2007.) In Santa Fe, Pisaroni assumed the “Nozze” Figaro (the role of his 2001 professional debut in 2001 at Stadttheater Klagenfurt in Austria, which he reprised last year for a Vienna State Opera tour of the Far East.)

Susanna Phillips, the Countess Almaviva, a Juilliard-trained Alabaman, was a Santa Fe Opera apprentice singer four seasons ago during which she, like all the apprentice singers, performed chorus roles. In her apprentice season, she covered the role of Donna Elvira in “Don Giovanni”. She subsequently has performed two other Mozart roles in Santa Fe – Pamina in “The Magic Flute” in 2006 and Fiordiligi in “Cosi fan Tutte” in 2007.

[Below: Luca Pisaroni as Figaro standing among the flowers; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

The two other principals, both winners of prestigious vocal contests and still both in their 20s, are assuming their first important international assignments.  Elizabeth Watts has had onstage experience through the English National Opera Young Artists’ Program in 2005-06 but no previous roles of the length and primacy of Susanna.

The Cherubino, Isabel Leonard, a Juilliard-trained New Yorker, made her professional stage debut (Zerlina in “Don Giovanni) in Bordeaux and has played the travesty role of Stephano in Gounod’s “Romeo et Juliette” in Atlanta and at the New York Met (in performances starring Anna Netrebko and Roberto Alagna). But her Santa Fe Cherubino has to be considered the major achievement to date in her young career.

Counting on Almaviva

Figaro, in Mozart’s opera, as in Rossini’s “Barber of Seville”, is the character identified in the opera’s title, yet the plots of both operas revolve around the schemes of Count Almaviva either to woo/win or to betray Rosina, who, at first the ward of Doctor Bartolo, by the time of “Nozze” has become the Countess Almaviva. Susanna, the young woman who is the object of the Count’s intended marital infidelity is at once the chambermaid of the Countess, his wife, and the fiancee of Figaro, his valet.

The Santa Fe cast proved again that when you have a powerful presence playing the Count and an engaging and sympathetic presence as Figaro, the opera is well-centered. Kwiecien, whose Count, seems, at least for now, to be his signature role, was the center of attention in many of the ensemble pieces for which the opera is noted. Predictably, the Count’s single solo aria, Vedro mentr’io sospiro, was a Kwiecien triumph.

[Below: Susanna Phillips as Rosina, the Countess Almaviva; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

It is an axiom of this website that “Nozze” is the most senior of the operas of the core operatic repertory and one of the most successful “adaptations from another medium” – to use a cinematic phrase – in the history of art.

No opera survives which was composed before it (and only a very few that came after it) that can make a claim to the popularity it achieved and has sustained.

This year it is 222 years old. The class and culture its original play set out to satirize has vanished into history, yet that doesn’t matter to the opera’s audiences.

Those of us who have seen it many times know there is nothing we do not know about its plot. We know all of its jokes and its wacky premises. We are in the know about its costume switches intended to deceive, which also lead to unintended misperceptions. Yet the work has the capacity continually to surprise us.

For us, the heart of the masterpiece is not its rather indistinct indictment of the ancien regime but its savvy portrayal of “relationships”, a theme so attune to 21st century sensibilities.

Consider the two males, master and servant, jealous of any rivals for “their women”. Add to their relationship the inherent problem caused by the obsession of a person in power (the Count) with the idea of the sexual conquest of a subordinate. Consider that in this opera, that the object of his desire has her own intertangled relationships with his wife and with his most important employee and operative.

With such a brew the situation could easily go the way of either comedy or tragedy. (Or revolution! But it is not the purpose of this review to comment on the impact of the opera, or the play on which it was based, on an emerging hostility to the historic rights claimed by the nobility that contributed to the events in 1789 in Paris.)

The conductor was British Kenneth Montgomery, who conducted without baton, with an obvious feel for Mozart’s music.  A characteristic of his approach is a pronounced ritardando in the final notes of several of Mozart’s luscious melodies. allowing the audience to savor the moment.

British actor-director Jonathan Kent, famous for his dozen years as co-director of the Almeida Theatre Company in London, who has already directed three Santa Fe Opera productions (and who will return for next year’s world premiere of Moravec’s “The Letter” based on the W. Somerset Maugham short story), created a new mounting of Mozart’s comedy.

The production designer was Paul Brown, who is now well known to San Francisco Opera audiences through his two collaborations with Graham Vick, 2007’s “Tannhauser” and 2008’s “Lucia di Lammermoor” (for discussions of these productions, see: Charismatic S. F. “Tannhauser” – October 12, 2007 and Dessay’s Lucia di Lammermoor Delights in San Francisco – June 29, 2008.)

A characteristic of Brown’s style is the interplay between an opera’s “outside” scenes and its “inside” scenes, which I describe as “inside-outside” unit sets. Even before the opera begins, one notices that the entire stage is covered with a field of flowers – perhaps representing domesticated tall phlox – presumably, a plant which the Almavivas or their gardener Antonio have encouraged to spread throughout their gardens.

As soon as Maestro Montgomery begins the overture, six costumed footmen in court style white wigs, arrive at the footlights to begin plucking the hundreds of flowers stuck in the several feet of the stage nearest the audience. As their arms fill with large bouquets, three of the footmen unload their bouquets into the arms of the other three. We soon understand that the six footmen will appear throughout the opera to move sets, add or remove furniture, and accomplish other feats similar to those of koken in operatic productions influenced by Japanese theater.

[Below: Figaro (Luca Pisaroni, center) sings “Non piu andrai” to Cherubino (Isabel Leonard, right, on rocking horse); as Susanna (Elizabeth Watts, left) watches; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera. ]

Free of flowers, the three footmen move to stage left to pull a light brown panel across the front midstage, which will represent the back wall of the room into which Figaro and Susanna are expected to move.

The lovers in service dominate the early part of the first act, permitting Pisaroni to make an excellent first impression both for his exuberant charm and rich basso.

Watts proved to be a vocally impressive Susanna, clearly a person who could “own” this role for many years to come. She moved awkwardly at times, but as she gains experience, that small criticism will be forgotten.

The second tier roles – all important, of course, particularly since they are entrusted with some of Mozart’s greatest vocal ensemble writing – were effectively cast.

Howell as Doctor Bartolo is the only member of cast playing one of the older generation characters who himself is remotely close to his character’s age.  Even though he was singing “vendetta”,  from his earliest appearances he seemed to play the role as if he were a kindly, avuncular spirit, so that when it was later revealed that he was Figaro’s “nice guy” dad, it proved to be an especially cheery family reunion.

Michaela Martens as Marcellina, Aaron Pegram as the oily Don Basilio, and Kyle Albertson as the gardener Antonio, all met the expectations of their crucial character roles.

However, the first act show stealer – as so often can happen – proved to be the Cherubino.  Isabel Leonard’s performance was so fully realized in its vocal performance, comedic timing and acting ability that one expects that scouts from other opera companies have made note of her name and that of her agents.  She is physically exactly right for the role of maturing adolescent – tall and boyishly slender.  (At one point, Elizabeth Watts, the diminutive Susanna, when singing about Cherubino wearing one of her dresses, makes a gesture noting the quite obvious difference in their heights.)

[Below: Act II in the Countess’ bedroom; from left Gwynne Howell (Bartolo), Michaela Martens (Marcellina), Aaron Pegram (Basilio), Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Elizabeth Watts (Susanna), Mariusz Kwiecien (Count) and Susanna Phillips (Countess); edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.]

I suspect that a true Mozart lover never can tire of the high-jinks in which Cherubino and Count Almaviva both are hiding in or around the same wing chair, but Leonard and Kwiecien were as funny as can be. In a clever setting for Figaro’s mock farewell to Cherubino, Non piu andrai, Figaro takes a rocking horse out of a closet which Cherubino mounts during the most famous of all of Mozart’s arias for basso.

Soon the servant’s apartment gives way to the Countess’ bedroom – which Paul Brown represents by an elegant silver back wall with a large open fireplace and a high circular window through which Cherubino will soon jump.  The Countess’ closet is a silver-colored wardrobe – not quite an entrance to Narnia, but one in which a lot will happen.

The Mother of All Ensembles

We begin the wonderful second act of “Nozze” with a nicely sung Porgi amor by Phillips’ Countess, followed by Leonard’s equally wondrous Voi, che sapete. This is the act in which the Mother of all Mozart Ensembles occurs.  When the Count arrives with his tools to open the small room  – or in Paul Brown’s setting, the wardrobe – where he believes Cherubino is hiding and violently enunciates the command Esci omai, garzon malnato, he begins an ensemble that lasts 88 pages of the piano score and engages himself, the Countess, Susanna, Figaro, Antonio, Marcellina, Bartolo and Basilio.

[Below: Elizabeth Watts (Susanna) at the desk with Susanna Phillips (Countess Almaviva) standing; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, courtesy of Santa Fe Opera.]

Beautifully staged by Kent, in the performance I attended there was one accident to be noted.  When Susanna Phillips’ Countess intended to sit in small chair seen at the left of the photo above, she slipped off of it and fell to the floor.  Kwiecien, of course staying in character, quickly moved to assist her recovery.

Not a note was out of place during the complex series of duets, trios, and larger ensembles that followed, although it was clear to the audience closest to the stage that this was a disconcerting and painful experience for Phillips.

As of course we know, the Count Almaviva finds himself in situations every other act where he has to sincerely apologize to the Countess.

The silver elegance that graced the walls of the Countess’ bedroom is repeated, in a more golden hue, for the chambers of the Count. As the various characters plot their intrigues, we are regaled with the spectacular costumes worn by the Almavivas, even as we revel in Kwiecien’s mercurial characterization of the Count and the enchantingly sung “letter” duet by Watts and Phillips.

We meet the final member of the principal cast, Barbarina (played by Jamie-Rose Guarrine), Antonio’s daughter, and the one woman in the cast willing to return Cherubino’s affections. Although it is but a wisp of a role, it has a short but hauntingly beautiful fourth act aria. This being a Paul Brown “inside-outside” production, doors and windows open to permit the villagers to participate in the festivities without actually having them roam through the Almavivas dwelling.

Phillips sang a memorable and affecting Dove sono. Santa Fe Opera being open air, she shared the stage and spotlight with a dragonfly, which, rather than detracting from Phillips’ beautifully sung aria, added to the moment’s magic.

[Below: Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) sees through the disguise of Susanna (Elizabeth Watts), dressed as the Countess; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

The fourth and final act consists of the sequences of intentional deceptions and unintended misperceptions that you have to buy into to “get” this opera.

The Santa Fe production’s Susanna and Countess were markedly different in height and physical size, yet the simple act of each appearing in the costume that resembled the one the other wore in the third act actually worked theatrically.

For the  fourth act, most of the stage is the “outside” – the garden that Cherubino jumped into during the second act, the grounds where the villagers congregate, and the places of assignation for illicit encounters.

The main characters sprawl on the stage hiding in the fields of flowers. Susanna , wearing a grey wig that mimics the Countess’ third act dress amd hairstyle, tricks Figaro for awhile, although he soon figures out the ruse.  The Countess wearing a copy of Susanna’s simple white dress inflames the Count’s passions.  Ultimately, the miscreant Count’s mischief is exposed and he is on his knees, again, begging the Countess’ pardon.

[Below: What’s the worst that can happen?  The Count Almaviva (Mariusz Kwiecien) finally achieves his goal of seducing Susanna, except it turns out that it is his wife the Countess (Susanna Phillips) disguised as Susanna instead; edited image, based on Ken Howard photograph, provided by Santa Fe Opera.]

The Santa Fe Opera deserves special praise for casting singers – most of whom are in their 20s or early 30s  – who sing and act in ways that makes this opera, when done well, so fun.

One expects that each of the principals that the Santa Fe audience saw will recreate the magic of these New Mexico nights for years to come in future “Nozze” productions throughout the world.

For the review of a recent San Francisco Opera production of the opera, see: S. F. “Nozze di Figaro” – July 2, 2006.