It was Latin night at the Met on Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, with three Latin American artists headlining a revival of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro.”
Ailyn Pérez, Isabel Leonard, and Nadine Sierra all topped the billing of a cast that also included two Eastern Europeans, Ildar Abdrazakov and Mariusz Kwiecien, as Figaro and the Count Almaviva respectively. To put it succinctly, every one of these five major artists had a standout evening in their own way, though it must be emphasized the Latinas of the group stood quite tall.
While Figaro is the titular character, Susanna is the main heroine. She is the one truly being oppressed from all sides and the one who constantly finds ways to help the other characters out of their respective challenges. Figaro constantly fails in his designs throughout the opera and it is ultimately Susanna and the Countess who find the way toward duping the Count. Taking on this challenge was Nadine Sierra who is truly growing into a star to behold. Right from her first introduction in the overture where she shows off her new veil to the other servants, Sierra was a bundle of energy, never to be dimmed the entire evening. Not once did she betray insecurity or a sense of true pain. Even when “spurned” by her man, she found a way to fight back; one such example is the scene wherein she finds Figaro hugging it out with Marcelina, her rival for his affection. Instead of standing around and crying, she went after him, her voice aggressive and pointed. This kind of feistiness was everywhere, and it made Susanna admirable to the viewer’s eyes. Her seduction of the Count was the most risqué of any interpretation this production has seen and her singing matched the moment with voluptuousness. She needled at Marcellina with “L’Eta” with growing intensity at each repetition of said word during their spat at the start of the opera.
Sierra’s Susanna was also an ardent and sincere lover, her exchanges with Figaro in the opening scene giving us incredible chemistry that immediately made the viewer feel the connection between these two characters. Her interactions with her Figaro were marked by pristine vocalism, the full beauty of her lyric soprano on full display at the end of the opera, and, especially, in the famous aria “Deh vieni, non tardar,” where Sierra’s sweet sound was shaped into an expansive phrase that built to glorious climax. She had the entire audience spellbound for those few minutes that Mozart’s glorious passage lasts; the enthusiastic applause that erupted after was an exhalation of something truly mesmerizing.
The Vocal Gem
Pérez, singing her first Contessa at the Met, was undeniably the vocal gem of the night. From the opening phrases of “Porgi, Amor” it was clear that she was a fragile woman who is hanging by a thread emotionally. Her entire portrayal of the aria was one of heartbreak, the line delicate but always connected. Pérez possesses an increasingly large sound, but it was quite surprising how restrained she was with its use throughout, opting for a gentle approach that gave the character a greater dignity and nobility. When she did pour out the massive volume she is capable of, it came in more confrontational moments with the Count at the end of Act two. “Porgi, amor” was beautiful,” but “Dove sono” was on another level altogether with Pérez managing what seemed like an extended legato phrase that just built and built until its reprisal, whereupon the soprano utilized ornamentations to express the lament and pain of the character. It was impossible not to feel loneliness at the core of this pain, the character’s sense of isolation and defeat building throughout. When the Countess falls to her lowest point by the end of the next act, her husband’s betrayal complete, Pérez didn’t need to give him an angry or disappointed look to tell us how she felt; she didn’t really look at him at all. As he apologized she showed him his back and her forgiveness saw her turn slowly to him, the extended line and slower tempo making the sense of hesitation all the stronger.
What was interesting about Pérez’s interpretation here was that you could tell she was deeply in love with the Count from the way she was so quick to jump into his arms and kiss him passionately at key junctures. We saw this in Act two and then at the very end of the opera where Pérez and Kwiecien were so involved in the moment that neither realized that the rest of their castmates had stopped their final pose to take applause. It was a humorous moment to be sure with other actors forced to give the two the signal to stop but emphasized just how committed they were to their roles.
The Consummate Portrayal
Isabel Leonard is probably the best Cherubino in the business, hands down. She disappears completely into the body of the “fanciul.” Her Cherubino is far from an innocent however, exuding sex at every turn, even with a suggestive and sly smile when she states at the end of her aria “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” that “parlo d’amor con me” and then finding moments to just flirt and misbehave with every single woman onstage. The entire first aria saw her make moves on Susanna as if he could not keep his hands off her. It was rather teenage in its approach with the usual cliché moves and such. The singing throughout the aria embodied this frenzied hormonal longing, even to the point of emotional instability. While most of the aria saw Leonard sing with bright sound and forward momentum, the end of it slowed down as she considered Cherubino’s loneliness, her face to the ground, the sound fading to nothing. By the time he sings for the Countess, Leonard imbued “Voi che sapete” with timidity in the first part of the aria, her Cherubino stiff and nervous as he sang that opening stanza. But as the aria progressed, one could sense the transformation, the easing of the body and the charming look that Leonard gave Pérez. Cherubino sat next to the Countess and sang the reprisal of the aria more intimately but with greater nuance and beauty of phrasing. The boy had turned into a man in that moment and even with the fun and games that came in the cross-dressing thereafter, there was a confidence in the character that only developed from scene to scene. This all came to full fruition in the final act where Leonard’s Cherubino not only sang with fuller and more potent sound, but was unstoppable in his flirtation with the woman throughout. Leonard’s interpretation of the character in this production has remained consistent throughout the years, but the shape of her Cherubino is far clearer in its execution. She is an all-encompassing artist that doesn’t need to revert to massive gestures to be truly masterful and this Cherubino is perhaps the greatest example of said genius.
The Main Man…
Not to be overlooked by any stretch of the imagination were the interpretations of the two leading men who cut quite opposing figures throughout the night. Whereas Ildar Abdrazakov played up Figaro as an aloof and genial relaxed fellow, Mariusz Kwiecien’s Count was an abusive hothead. Abdrazakov was finely attuned to Sierra’s vibrant energy playing it up with similar energy and even going a bit overboard at others. Upon revealing his plan to dupe the Count to Susanna and the Countess he got up and did a little dance for the audience, to raucous applause. It was delightful though a bit strange within the context. This was emblematic of his performance in the comedic moments for sure, though it hardly detracted from his more nuanced displays. These were, of course, the points where Figaro is feeling defeated. “Si vuol ballare” was far from a playful tune, but one filled with increasing aggression. You could feel the bass accenting each “Si” more and more. The first “Si vuol ballare” was light in its approach while the reprisal, softer in tone, was more emphatic in its phrasing. The final aria, wherein Figaro laments the betrayal of his wife was also dark and rough in its portrayal. Abdrazakov had spent the entire evening with brightness in his singing that to suddenly hear the lower reaches in a more jagged quality was surprising and also enriching to the portrayal. We could feel a darker side to Figaro emphasizing the fact that this opera, for all its comedic genius, has a far greater complexity in its characterization and thematic development.
…And His Rival
Carrying the burden of the heavier material was Kwiecien, whose Count oscillated between being abusive in his use of power against women, to being gentle and dashing. His flirtations with Susanna were raw and aggressive in nature, to the point where one felt he might go too far. Kwiecien’s voice is developing a heftier feel these days and he played up this element to give a vocal performance, that while not necessarily finessed and “proper” was brimming with unwieldy power. This was most noticeable in the Count’s big aria “Vedro mentr’io sospiro” where Kwiecien pushed his instrument to its limit to express volcanic fury and frustration. It wasn’t beautiful, but it was visceral.
If there were any vocal imperfections, they suited the out-of-control nature of his actions throughout, from his brutality with his wife to his harassment of the woman around him. And yet at other times you could feel the sincerity and affection in his voice, most notably in his apologetic tone with his wife. We don’t often feel that the Count is truly sorry about seeing his wife suffer, but Kwiecien really connected with Pérez throughout the night, his longing stares and his attempts to console her captivating. Here we would hear a polish of line, Kwiecien opting to expand such passages vocally throughout. This was, of course, most noticeable in the grand “O Contessa Perdona,” where he could make anyone weep with that seemingly unending sound that expressed all the sorrow and regret one could hope for.
Maurizio Muraro and MaryAnn McCormick were comical in their performances as Bartolo and Marcellina while Ashley Emerson was a coquettish Barbarina with a pure and gentle sound. As Don Basilio, Greg Fedderly was lecherous in his looks; his glances at Susanna, particularly in the Act one trio were disturbing. Throw in his rather succinct manner with consonants and you had a very snake-like performance.
Maestro Harry Bicket had a solid night in the pit. There was a section in the opening duet with Susanna and Figaro where he seemed to burst ahead of the singers, but they recovered and the remainder of the evening went rather swimmingly. He’s a Mozart specialist and his tempi were propulsive and the orchestral colored gentle, but he was also quite generous with his singers. When Pérez sang softer in her two major arias, he found a way to get the ensemble to blend with her. Ditto with Sierra in her final aria. When Kwiecien stretched out that glorious “O Contessa perdona” for what seemed like eternity, he let that phrase blossom gloriously so that Pérez’s sublime response of forgiveness could be just as tender. The buildup of the entire Act one finale, that incredible passage in which Mozart builds tension by the simple act of adding a voice to the ensemble, zipped by effortlessly. The ensembles gelled seamlessly as a whole, the sextet in the third act of particular note in its cohesion and overall polish.
The production by Richard Eyre is not everyone’s favorite and criticism will come from different directions. Many will point to the metallic set that doesn’t really resemble a Count’s palace or the architecture of Spain. Others will turn to that same set and question how it tends to eat the singers’ sound.
Others still will emphasize the social interactions between the characters where servants cuddle up with masters and the overall physical interactions between characters is far from formal.
It is, in fact, this very choice from Eyre when the production first opened a few years ago that drew this writer’s particular attention this time around, given the social context. Seeing Susanna repeatedly grabbed and touched by a number of men in the opera in inappropriate manners that were clearly uncomfortable to the character emphasized that at its heart, this opera is about a woman trying to liberate herself from the sexual harassment and oppression of her boss. Plain and simple. That Susanna ultimately succeeds this goal and is the motor that ultimately leads to this victory obviously emphasizes the inherent feminism in the work, but it doesn’t detract from the fact that as constructed, the Count is sexually harassing her. And as staged, those elements are event more pronounced, darkening the way we empathize with his character and others. Cherubino’s own advances, which could be played off as a child’s play and “cute,” actually take a different perspective when one notes that he is made out to be a “mirror” of the Count, the two wearing identical black suits in the opera’s final act. His sly touching of Susanna in the first act, while certainly played for laughs, pronounces the darker undercurrent within the work.
It’s an interesting perspective on the work given the social milieu.
The production itself works on other levels, mainly in its ability to generate momentum and scale through the rotating set. The fact that overture highlights all the major players while establishing the geography of the palace also plays a major role in the audience’s understanding of the overall layout.
“Le Nozze di Figaro” is one of the greatest works of art humanity has ever concocted. It’s even better when it has an excellent cast, as is the case right now at the Metropolitan Opera.