Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” is the longest running smash hit in the standard operatic repertory, as witty, hilariously funny, and beautifully written as any musical composition ever designed for performance. It is a source of wonder that throughout its 226 years of existence up to the present day, opera goers can attend performances multiple times and still find the gags as fresh and funny as ever.
Vienna Volksoper unveiled a new production by Marco Arturo Marelli, as “Die Hochzeit des Figaro”, as is the opera company’s custom, in the vernacular language that Mozart himself spoke.
[Below: Stage director Marco Arturo Marelli; edited image, based on a photograph, courtesy of Vienna Volksoper.]
Marelli’s concepualization, although always reverent of the intent of Mozart and his brilliant librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, was hipper, a bit more sexual than traditional performances. Its essence was a quick pace and superbly executed comic timing. The eleven principal singers were all exceptional Mozart singers.
The hochzeit in question is of course the upcoming marriage of Figaro (played by Tokyo-trained basso Yasushi Hirano) to Susanna (played by Lubbock, Texas’ soprano Rebecca Nelsen).
[Below: Susanna (Rebecca Nelsen, left) is about to be married to Figaro (Yasushi Hirano, right); edited image, based on a photograph for the Vienna Volksoper.]
The complication in their impending marriage is Count Almaviva’s regret that he has surrendered his rights to the ius primae noctis of his female servant. This imaginary right – one of the many satirical digs at hereditary nobility in Beaumarchais’ subversive play Le Mariage de Figaro (on which the opera is based) that did its part to bring about the French Revolution – is that a feudal lord had the right to ravish the virginity of any of his female servants on their wedding night, before her husband got his turn.
One of the recurring themes of the opera is the determination of Figaro, Susanna, and the Countess Almaviva. to prevent the Count from reneging on his surrender of this right. Equally determined is the Count to assert his hereditary rights, despite his formal repudiation of it, to Susanna’s virginity.
Notes on the Production
Towards the end of the sprightly overture – the Volksoper’s excellent acoustics responding to the warm sound of the Volksoper Orchestra, led by Conductor Dirk Kaftan – stage panels slowly opened to reveal Cherubino (Dorottya Lang) in a window sill.
Another panel opens, revealing Figaro on a ladder, painting the room adjacent to the Count’s bedroom that he and his bride-to-be Susanna will share.
In traditional productions, the room contains a chair that will be the focus for an upcoming comic scene. Marelli dispenses with the chair, and instead, has Figaro and Susanna put together their wedding bed.
[Below: Susanna (Rebecca Nelson, top) tries out the new bed on top of her fiance, Figaro (Yosushi Hirano, bottom) edited image, based on a Barbara Palffy photograph, courtesy of the Vienna Volksoper.]
Nelsen’s Susanna disabuses Hirano’s Figaro of the idea that the location is for the servant’s convenience, hinting that the Count will find errands to remove Figaro from the house, leaving Susanna vulnerable to the Count’s predations.
The Count has allies in his schemes. Marcellina (Sulie Girardi) wants to force Figaro to marry her and Dr Bartolo (Stefan Czerny), who, in the “Barber of Seville”, the prologue to “Marriage of Figaro”, was the victim of a plot conceived by Figaro, swears his revenge. Czerny, after singing Bartolo’s great vengeance aria, got the first sustained ovation of the evening.
[Below: From left to right, Don Basilio (Paul Schweinester), Don Bartolo (Stefan Czerny) and Marcellina (Sulie Girardi) plot to prevent a wedding; edited image, based on a Barbara Palffy photograph, courtesy of the Vienna Volksoper.]
Bartolo and Marcellina at this point are Susanna’s enemies. Their first confrontation is amusingly staged by Mariani, ending with Nelsen’s Susanna throwing three books across the room at Czerny’s Bartolo, two falling into a big valise, the third, to audience applause, being caught in mid-air by Czerny.
Cherubino (Dorottya Lang) arrives in Susanna’s room for some counseling about his love-life and his troubles with the Count, when suddenly they hear the Count (Konstantin Wolff in his Volksoper debut) outside and Cherubino hides under the bed.
The Count arrives in a state of undress in Susanna’s room, at just the moment that his page Cherubino is hiding under the bed.
[Below: The Count Almaviva (Konstantin Wolff, right) drops in to see if Susanna (Rebecca Nelsen, left) might need his help; edited image, based on a Barbara Palffy photograph for the Vienna Volksoper.]
When an agent of mischief, Don Basilio (Paul Schweinester) appears, a series of intricately timed position switches occur to the hearty laughter of the audience. When Basilio gossips about Cherubino’s lust for the Countess, an angry Count forgets his compromising position and reveals himself, soon to be aware that Cherubino is there and has been witness to the Count’s attempted seduction of Susanna.
A now savvy Figaro brings the townsfolk who bring the pillows and bedcoverings for the marital bed. Foiled in his plot and wishing to get Cherubino out of the household, Wolff’’s Almaviva enlists Cherubino in his private regiment, cheered on by Hirano’s Figaro singing the opera’s most famous aria.
[Below: Figaro (Yasushi Hirano, above) places a military hat on Cherubino (Dorottya Lang, below); edited image, based on a Barbara Zeiniger photograph for the Vienna Volksoper.]
The Countess (Detroit’s Jacquelyn Wagner) and Susanna discuss their own strategies to counter the Count’s intended infidelities. The appearance of Cherubino provides Mariani with the chance to make clear, through an amorous locked gaze between Cherubino and the Countess, that the Count’s suspicion that his wife might be vulnerable to a play by a randy adolescent boy is not wholly imaginary.
Lang’s Cherubino sings Voi che sapete (in German, of course) with variations not often heard in performance. The remainder of the act is one hilarious situation after another, accompanied by the extensively through-composed ensemble that constitutes most of the latter half of the scene.
In a brilliant Mariani touch the principals, the anti-Figaro four (the Count, Bartolo, Marcellina and Basilio) and the pro-Figaro three (Countess, Susanna and Figaro) end up tusseling on the Countess’ bed, the Count again having been foiled in his plot. Martin Winkler also contributed to the scene’s mirth as the gardiner, Antonio.
Even so, the anti-Figaro four do a kind of victory dance, although the alliances will change, after the intermission, as Marcellina presses her case.
[Below: Susanna (Rebecca Nelsen, left) makes it clear to the Countess Almaviva (Jacquelyn Wagner, right) that the Countess’ husband has fidelity issues; edited image, based on a Barbara Palffy photograph, courtesy of the Vienna Volksoper.]
Wolff performed the Count’s great aria Hai già vinta la causa with great effectiveness.
The count assumes the noble robes of the feudal justice so as to hear Marcellina’s case requiring Figaro to marry her, assisted by the stammering Don Curzio, hilariously played by Wolfgang Gratschmaier.
But, alas, for the Count, his plot is foiled yet again, because Marcellina from the testimony of Figaro’s origins, suddenly realizes that she is his mother and that Bartolo is his father. Withdrawal of her claim removes the only impediment to the marriage.
The Countess’ great aria Dove sono (auf deutsch) received the largest ovation of the evening.
The Countess and Susanna devise their own plot, deciding to exchange dresses to trick the Count into accidentally romancing his own wife. She excites the Count with the suggestion that they will have some amorous time alone that evening.
[Below: the Count Almaviva (Konstantin Wolff, right) is persuaded by Susanna (Rebecca Nelsen, left) that she will finally yield to him later that evening; edited image, based on a Rita Newman photograph, courtesy of the Vienna Volksoper.]
To trick the Count, Susanna and the Countess set up an elaborate intrigue, enlisting Cherubino’s girl friend, Barbarina (Mara Winkler).
At the wedding celebration, Count and Countess lead the wedding party, followed by Marcellina and Bartolo, and Figaro and Susanna, in a flamenco dance.
The final scene provides yet more opportunities for a comic genius like Mariani to devise swiftly moving routines. Since Figaro was not brought into Susanna’s plot, there are opportunities for confusion and bluster until he figures out the ruse that Susanna is dressed as the Countess and vice versa.
The Count’s plot is foiled yet even another time, and he is forced, in the denouement, into a heartfelt apology to the Countess and promise to mend his errant ways.
As wonderful as the solo arias are for Figaro, Susanna, the Count and Countess, Cherubino and Barbarina (solo arias for Marcellina and Basilio are rarely performed and are cut in this production), much of Mozart’s most inspired music appears in the many ensemble numbers.
A short duet for two village girls was sung instead by two principal singers, Barbarina and Cherubino (the latter in dressed still dressed as a girl), thus limiting the cast to 11 first rate voices.
The scenery was by Enrico De Feo, with costumes by Dagmar Niefind.
Mariani’s Volksoper production is skillfully devised, always lively and very funny. It would translate well for non-German speaking audiences either in its original Italian or in the vernacular language of whatever community it is appearing.