The great British director, Sir Nicholas Hytner, once famously quipped that you could set Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” on the Moon, as long as you located the doors in the right place.
His colleague, Michael Grandage, CBE, chose not the Moon, but Andalusian Spain in the late 1960s (in the countryside near Seville) for his 2012 Glyndebourne Festival co-production with the Houston Grand Opera.
When it became Houston’s turn to show the production off, HGO assembled a talented cast representing North America, Europe and Asia, who sang beautifully and caught the madcap spirit of Grandage’s take on the familiar story.
Boogie Nights in Andalusia
The Grandage production sets the action not too long after the Beatles and other British rock groups launched the psychedelic revolution, whose effects obviously have subverted whatever discipline existed in the Almaviva household.
[Below: the Almavivas are greeted by an entourage of servants, as they arrive home; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Sixties’ gags are abundant. The Almavivas arrive in a spiffy sports car at the opera’s opening. The Almavivas, their servants and guests don the period’s sometimes elegant, often eccentric costumes. All classes mingle for ’60s style pony and twist dances to celebrate the marital festivities.
[Below: some fun time at the wedding reception; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Should the Count carelessly leave a joint around, all the better for Cherubino and his squeeze, Barbarina.
As befits a socially avant-garde household in a period of time in which the women’s movement in Western democracies was accelerating, all the women in Mozart’s opera – the Countess, Susanna, Marcellina and Barbarina – prove strong and resourceful.
In celebration, HGO assembled a remarkable quartet of artists, respectively Ailyn Pérez, Heidi Stober, Catherine Cook and Pureum Jo, for this quartet.
The men, Figaro, the Count, Cherubino, Don Bartolo and Don Basilio – played respectively by Adam Plachetka, Joshua Hopkins, Lauren Snouffer, Peixin Chen and Keith Jameson – whatever their own schemes might be at a given moment, usually find themselves the unwitting object of the intrigues of the quartet of merry wives (or wives to be).
Stober, Hopkins, Snouffer and Chen were all alumni of the Houston Grand Opera Studio artists, and Jo was one of three current members of HGO Studio in the cast.
[Below: Susanna (Heidi Stober, front left) and Figaro (Adam Platchekta, front right) do their dancing thing; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Ailyn Pérez’ Countess
Although the Countess by tradition gets the fourth position at curtain call (preceding the curtain calls for the Count, Susanna and Figaro), her two big arias Porgi amor and Dove sono when sung by a great artist will often be show-stealing experiences. So it was with the performance of Illinois soprano Ailyn Pérez, whose exquisitely sung, introspective Dove sono received the audience’s most enthusiastic mid-performance ovation.
[Below: The Countess (Ailyn Pérez, left), Susanna (Heidi Stober, center) and Figaro (Adam Plachetka, right) discuss their mutual concerns; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Luxuriously costumed, Pérez was mesmerizing performing one of Mozart’s greatest roles, as the disheartened wife of her chronic womanizer husband.
Heidi Stober’s Susanna
The longest role in the opera is that of Figaro’s fiance Susanna. Heidi Stober made a strong impression in the role.
[Below: Susanna (Heidi Stober, right) receives some important information from the gossipy Don Basilio (Keith Jameson, left); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Susanna is at or near the center of everything happening in the opera. Stober’s secure lyric soprano, especially affecting in her last act aria Deh vieni, non tardar, proved exactly right for this role.
Joshua Hopkins’ Count Almaviva
Canadian baritone Joshua Hopkins, who missed the production’s first performance (and apparently also the production photographs) eight days prior because of illness, was in good voice.
[Below: Joshua Hopkins wearing the pants and vest of Count Almaviva’s third act costume in his dressing room at the 2013 Glyndebourne Festival; edited image of a photograph from Joshua Hopkins’ Facebook site.]
Like those for the Countess, the production’s costumes for her Almaviva spouse were extravagant, the Count’s third act suit and vest especially memorable.
Adam Plachetka’s Figaro
The staging of Czech bass-baritone Adam Platchetka’s Figaro was rather more subdued than one would expect from the transposition of an 18th century firebrand into the hedonistic late 1960s.
That said, I enjoyed his spirited last act Aprite un po’ quegli occhi in which Figaro, misreading what is happening around him, denounces womankind.
Lauren Snouffer’s Cherubino and Pureum Jo’s Barbarina
Sporting a 1960s British rockstar hairstyle and looking like a Carnaby Street fashion plate, Lauren Snouffer projected an appealing and beautifully sung Cherubino.
[Below: Barbarina (Pureum Jo, left) and Cherubino (Lauren Snouffer, right) boogie at the wedding reception; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
The part of Barbarina with its aria L’ho perduta, me meschina – one of Mozart’s most haunting melodies – can be a prize assignment for a young soprano early in her career. Pureum Jo was a standout in both the aria and the performance as a whole, auguring well for a major operatic career.
Catherine Cook’s Marcellina, Peixin Chen’s Doctor Bartolo and Keith Jameson’s Don Basilio
Catherine Cook and Keith Jameson have both established niches as character actors. For Cook, Marcellina has become a signature role. She is unexcelled in the nuances of this character who shifts (along with her companion Doctor Bartolo) from villain to good guy in an instant.
[Below: Doctor Bartolo (Peixin Chen, left) explains his importance to the world to the scheming Marcellina (Catherine Cook, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]
Keith Jameson is a newcomer this month to the Houston Grand Opera (alternating the roles of Don Basilio and the Gameskeeper in “Rusalka”). Don Basilio is a role with which he is closely associated. Costumed in plaid and with a bright red wig, he embodied the image of a sleazy used car salesman.
Chinese basso Peixin Chen navigated the tongue-twisting lyrics of arguably Mozart’s greatest buffo aria, La Vendetta, and showed he has the comic timing and vocal prowess to be a dominant presence in this role in the manner that his colleagues Cook and Jameson are as Marcellina and Basilio.
Notes on the Production
Sir Nicholas’ pronouncement that one can set “Marriage of Figaro” on the moon has profound corollaries – that this comic masterpiece has a universality and an indestructibilty that suggests that any setting that does not detract from the opera story and music can be successful.
The Moorish influence on Andalusian architecture guides each of British Designer Christopher Oram’s sets for each of the opera’s four acts. It was Oram who also designed the fanciful costumes.
There is much to admire in Grandage’s staging and in the turntable-mounted Oram’s sets, the soothing sepia tones of the last three acts balancing out the depressing malachite green of the first act in the Figaro-Susanna bedroom.
Choreography is usually not a major concern in a “Marriage of Figaro” production, but British Movement Director Ben Wright was enlisted to invent lively dance sequences for nobility and servants to twist the night away.
The conducting of Harry Bicket was masterful, and on his watch, several of the principals assayed alternate passages in the later stanzas of their major arias rarely heard in modern performance.
Federico De Michelis was the gardener Antonio, Chris Bozeka was Don Curzio and Laurie Lester and Cecilia Duarte were the Bridesmaids.
The revival was staged by British director Ian Rutherford. (When Joshua Hopkins took ill the day of the scheduled first performance, Rutherford unexpectedly made his Houston Grand Opera stage debut mime-acting the part of Count Almaviva while HGO Studio Artist Ben Edquist sang the part.)
I recommend this production and cast, both for the veteran opera-goer and for the person new to opera.