Metropolitan Opera 2019-20 Review: Le Nozze di Figaro
Étienne Dupuis, Anita Hartig, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, Adam Plachetka Shine in Mozart’s MasterpieceBy David Salazar
Richard Eyre’s production of “Le Nozze di Figaro” at the Metropolitan Opera is far from perfect. But what it has proven to be over the years, is durable and a blast for audiences and performers alike.
Despite its metallic set that seems to swallow up sound from the stage, there is no doubt that its revivals are often fantastic experiences that engage musically and visually. Audiences have a lot of fun, as was the case on Feb. 8, 2020 when Eyre’s rendition of the work returned for the 11th time this season with an impressive cast.
In the title role, Adam Plachetka portrayed Figaro with ample breadth of emotion.
He was a bit stiff in the opening scenes, his sound a bit grainy and unfocused in the opening duet with Susanna; his “Si vuol ballare” lacked much range of dynamics and general development. Moreover, his movements seemed a bit calculated and there was an awkwardness to his interactions with Hanna-Elisabeth Müller’s Susanna.
It wasn’t the most promising of beginnings.
But then Plachetka returned for “Non più andrai” and started to really warm into the role. His singing took on great clarity throughout the aria and he started to move with greater freedom, pushing poor Cherubino about and even knocking the poor boy to the floor at one point while playfully bullying him.
The bass-baritone’s first appearance in the second act was comic gold with Plachetka sitting between Susanna and the Countess and laying out his plan, full of giddiness. As he finished delineating every step, he sat back, his arms outstretched as he basked in his glory. To his sides, the two women seemed a bit dubious, a fact he was initially oblivious to.
When faced with Count a few scenes later, Plachetka used his tall frame to try and intimidate his counterpart into submission on a few occasions; but the rebuffs he faced added to the comedy of the moment. When Antonio accused him of being too tall to have jumped out the window, he immediately squatted down very quickly, drawing tremendous audience laughter. While a lot of interpreters of this production ignore the injured foot after the initial gag, Plachetka played it through all the way to the end of the Act until the final trio of conspirators showed up.
Figaro’s coarser nature would take over the spotlight in the fourth act when Plachetka pushed Maureen McKay’s Barbarina aside rather violently upon finding out about suspected infidelity between Susanna and the Count (he also threw himself into his mother’s arms and cried like a baby). His voice here took on a more aggressive quality, the bass-baritone pushing his dynamics to the extremes.
His aria “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi” built on this anger with the opening section particularly jagged in the phrasing, the consonants firing away pointedly during the “maligni maestri d’inganni” triplets. But then the D flat half note on “Il resto non dico” turned into a sob, exposing Figaro’s pain amidst his fury. The repeat of this section featured a stronger crescendo on the triplets with the D flat half note more accented. The repetitions of “già ognuno lo sa” were gradually diminunendoed, suggesting Figaro’s trepidations before the last phrase was delivered with a sense of resolve.
Perhaps one of the most compelling moments of the evening came during Susanna’s “Deh vieni;” hidden in the shadows stage right, Plachetka’s Figaro sat on the ground through the entire aria with his head down in a protective position, every phrase seemingly a blow to his broken heart. This aria is such a glorious piece of music that it is easy to get lost in its simple beauty; in the context of the opera, seeing Figaro suffering so acutely added greater counterpoint, building the dramatic stakes significantly.
The lower the lows, the more powerful the highs will feel. So it was no surprise that when he finally realized that it was Susanna dressed as a the Countess, Plachetka’s entire body language and vocal expression took on a brightness that had not been felt to that point. As such, his toying with her was all the more engaging and when they finally did recognize one another, the reconciliation was gentle and tender.
Of course, in their final contribution to the façade, both Plachetka and Müller exaggerated their illicit “affair” to the extreme with the bass-baritone using potent physicality to lift up the soprano in his arms with relative ease, all while exaggerating his vocal boasting to truly comic effect.
Heroine of the Narrative
At the core of the story is Susanna and her ability to outsmart everyone else in the room. Hanna-Elisabeth Müller proved a truly refined interpreter for the role, opting for a more subtle approach throughout, allowing for her bigger gestures to truly make an impact.
This Susanna could be seen as a master poker player, keeping things pretty close to the vest until necessary. This was first exemplified in her duet with Marcellina in which she seemed less interested in bullying her rival into submission and more intent on frustrating her into defeat. As such, her articulations of the text, while pointed, never felt overly malicious or exaggerated. The humor came from how much fun she was having while her rival, as played by MaryAnn McCormick, grew more and more flustered.
In her first scene with Cherubino, she was the attentive listener, but very observant ready to cut him off when he tried to make a move. The same happened with the Count, where it was never in doubt who had the upper hand. While it undermined the threat of the Count a bit in their scenes together, it showed how good Susanna was at self-preservation. One fine and psychologically acute example of this came during “Non più andrai.” She was sitting at the table upstage when the Count approached her to sit beside her. She then got up and walked all the way to the other side of the table, a clear indication that she wanted to be away from him. But then she did something quite clever – she flirted with him. It seemed weird at first, but watching baritone Étienne Dupuis’ reactions to her, it was clear what the game was. She was leading him on and convincing him that he was winning and in control. But in doing so, she was keeping him as far as way as possible.
She did seem to let loose a bit more in her scenes with the Countess, allowing the two women to really bond. But her calmness remained in her handling of Cherubino during her aria “Venite, inginocchiatevi.” Her voice always poised and graceful, there was a fluidity throughout the range that made it all feel strongly connected. Physically, her movements were sparse as she did her best to keep the flighty Cherubino from flirting with the Countess, her eyes fixed on him throughout.
But Susanna was no machine and when her emotions got the best of her, Müller really embraced them. Faced with losing Figaro at the end of the first Act, Müller’s Susanna pushed side Plachetka aside and ran at Marcellina, seemingly ready to beat her, her singing forte and present. And when she saw Figaro hugging Marcellina during the sextet, her fury was off the charts, eventually slapping his face violently. At the end of the opera, she was also rather vicious in beating up Figaro for trying to flirt with the “Countess,” her vocal declamations strongly accented.
Conversely, she also explored Susanna’s romance with such moments as “Chi al par di me contenta” expressed with warm sound, the F natural fermata gentle and melting into the final notes of the phrase. But perhaps the most glorious moment for Müller from a vocal standpoint was the aria “Deh vieni non tardar.” Her voice had a sweetness that was rare throughout the rest of the night, allowing the audience to simply soak in the beauty of her singing and the magic of being in love. It sounded fearless and effortless all the same and the extended F natural near the end of the aria was phrased with a masterful mezza di voce.
As the Count Almaviva, Étienne Dupuis played up the majestic nature of the character. His attempted seduction of Susanna was never vulgar, but instead elegant and suggestive. He would try to win her with his loaded glances, but also with his delicate delivery of the recitative, which was best indicated in their very first interactions. Even as she tried to deter him, he remained cool and collected, sitting close by and simply singing tenderly to her. This suggested a man completely confident of his control.
During his seduction of “Susanna” in the fourth act finale, he also retained this gallant approach, attempting to charm his way to her through this sense of refinement. Oftentimes, interpreters might start to pursue a more aggressive approach toward the text to explore the Count’s increased excitement, with such words as “mi pizzica, mi stuzzica” getting particular accentuation. But Dupuis, while delivering the text with clarity, didn’t take this approach, but instead inserted a more subtle vocalization of the passage, his singing slightly stronger on the repetition of the phrase without being overemphatic. He was excited, but not trying to scare her away.
When Figaro tried to outwit him during the Act two finale, Dupuis’ Count maintained his cool the entire time, rarely ever betraying any sense of frustration toward his rival. His sound was even, his singing very polished with clear diction. It was a masterclass in restraint and elegance, establishing the Count’s authority without having to emphasize it.
But as the story progressed and the Count found himself facing increasingly complicated obstacles, Dupuis allowed his anger and hostility to come through in his singing and physical behavior. He had a number of violent outbursts with his wife where he really allowed his singing to take on a harsher tone; his interpretation very much reflected Müller’s own approach, which allowed him a more varied color palette overall. In this manner, they seemed like equal adversaries at the core of the opera’s conflict.
During his big aria, Dupuis explored the Count’s sense of insecurity through a rage. His voice soared throughout the Met auditorium, the phrasing growing more accented as he moved toward its climax; it explored a man losing a sense of control and growing even more desperate as his sense of inadequacy increased. This all built up to his truly combative approach to the final “Gente, gente! All’armi, all’armi!” and the forceful repetitions of “No!”
But he was far from an all-out bully and in many moments actually elicited great sympathy. When realizing that he had been harsh with his wife during the Act two finale, he smoothly tried to placate her, using a delicate vocal manner with both the Countess and Susanna. But as he found himself rebuffed, his frustration grew and the first of three “Guardatemi” was delivered with the fullness of his voice, expressing a sense of desperation. But her ensuing rejection forced him to take a more gentle approach and the next two “Guardatemi” of this sequence were softer than the last, the phrase ending on a pianissimo D flat whole note into C natural. This quelled the flames of anger and moments later, he was embracing his wife tenderly.
At the end of the opera, when he realizes his big mistake yet again, Dupuis returned to the glorious piano singing of that last “Guardatemi” from the trio, the diminuendo on the last note, creating a massive void of silence. There was sincerity in his look and as the opera closed, he took the ring that he had offered “Susanna” earlier and placed it on the Countess’ finger as the stage went black to close the opera.
Reaching Her Breaking Point
Hartig, who has sung Susanna before, is taking on the Countess for the first time during this run and she proved to be an audience favorite during the Saturday performance. Her singing has always been characterized by the warmth and fullness of her sound, which remained a proponent of this performance. More than any other singer, it seemed that her sound reverberated through the ensembles with tremendous clarity, the tremulous vibrato providing stunning radiance to her polished legato phrasing.
She was particularly fantastic in the ensembles, allowing the Countess to really develop into a potent force in the context of a drama that constantly undermines her. Her scenes with Marianne Crebassa’s Cherubino seemed to allow that relationship’s sexual tension to blossom further than most previous interpretations in this production, with Hartig initially showing herself to be timid around the teen and eventually allowing herself to be drawn to him more and more.
But perhaps the most intriguing aspect of her characterization was her relationship with the Count, where we could see the on and off dynamics of their marriage throughout the opera. If felt like they had gone through something similar numerous times before, but it was this very understanding that allowed the audience to feel that the Countess was reaching a breaking point that could potentially end the relationship, adding to the stakes.
Their heated exchange throughout “Susanna, or via sortite” had all the intensity of a marital feud in which both sides are sick of one another, the soprano matching her angry husband phrase for phrase, her voice potent and full. Her expressions of “Fermatevi, sentite” in response to the Count’s request that Susanna exit the closet were particularly emphatic, the latter interjections of “Fermatevi, sorire ella no può” the most accented of the sequence. She took it up a notch with an even more impassioned “Nemmen, nemmen, nemmeno” which ascended to a forceful A natural that transitioned into pointed G naturals on repeated “tacete’s.” This entire musical sequence expressed the Countess boiling over and eventually exploding with resistance against her husband. The three distinct runs to G natural and two high C naturals were diminuendoed beautifully, the high note gentle, short, and suggesting her vulnerability in the situation; the last of these runs to high C natural suggested her sense of loss in this battle.
When Susanna eventually exited the closet and the Count begged her for forgiveness, Hartig made him work for it. But once he did, she stared longingly into his eyes for quite some time; even Figaro’s interjection in the scene could not interrupt them from one another. This moment allowed the audience to feel the connection between the two that, while fleeting, suggested opera’s hopeful ending.
When he asked her for forgiveness in the opera’s climax, Hartig’s Countess withdrew slightly and then delivered the “Piu docile io sono” with delicate legato singing, while looking in his direction. While she sat away from him throughout the ensuing ensemble, eventually she turned to him and ran into his arms, keeping with the original staging; however, her walk toward him was slower and more measured, giving the moment a stronger sense of tension.
Her famed duet with Susanna, “Sull’aria” was particularly notable for her ability to match Müller phrase for phrase, bringing these two characters together not only emotionally, but also musically. It is a wonderful expression of humans bonding despite class difference, which was felt quite prominently in how these two artists coalesced their voices so well together.
There was some shaky intonation in some of the more exposed passages of her two famed arias “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” with passages between E flat and F in the former and E natural and G providing some precariousness. This seemed mainly the result of Hartig’s choice to sing these sections with thread-like piano sound all while sitting. Inversely, when she stood up for the Allegro section of “Dove sono,” her sound was fuller, providing a sense of stability; the tessitura doesn’t really change, but the subtle shakiness in those initial passages was nowhere to be found. Of course, it must be said that the effect of the more delicate approach to “Porgi amor” and the opening of “Dove sono” suggested the pain of the Countess at her most desperate and provided the listener with the kind of tension one feels watching someone walking a tightrope. The fact that her sound blossomed into the auditorium beautifully added to the sense of complete immersion in her performance.
As Cherubino, Marianne Crebassa matched her colleagues’ refined vocalism, delivering a handsomely sung interpretation of the hormonal teenager. There was brightness in everything she sang, with the opening aria “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio” full of propulsion and energy. She made it sound easy, underlying a sense of confidence in Cherubino. This also allowed for the Adagio at the end of the aria, which was slowed down significantly, to play as a greater contrast and reveal the emptiness that he feels. “Parlo d’amor con me” was slowed further, the quarter rest between “me” and “con” feeling expansive before the fermata on the D natural linked to “me” diminuendoed into a greater fermata pause. The final “Parlo d’amor con me,” which was sung with more assertive sound, came off as an acceptance of that loneliness.
But then “Voi che sapete” showed the character as his most assertive. From the outset of the aria, there was a sense of confidence as Crebassa’s Cherubino romanced the Countess. When she sang the repeat of the main melody piano, Crebassa moved ever closer to Hartig, singing it softly and gently to her face. The tension was palpable, especially because it had been built up from the very beginning of the aria. You could tell that Cherubino had struck a chord with the Countess and the remainder of the scene between the two of them furthered the flirtation.
At the close of the opera, Cherubino arrives on the scene to seduce Susanna once more. Crebassa played Cherubino as if he were drunk, his movements a bit out of control and overly aloof. It was a hilarious moment and seemed to bridge the gap between the introspective boy from the opening scene to a more confident man ready to take anyone he wanted – there was no doubt that for all his good intentions, he was going to be like the Count one day.
In the supporting roles, Maurizio Muraro played a cranky Don Bartolo in the opening “Si! Vendetta” aria but then softened up more and more as the opera unfolded; he was all smiles during the sextet.
McCormick wore her heart on her sleeves as Marcellina, whether as a prospective wife for Figaro or as his doting mother. When Figaro jumped into her arms during the fourth Act, she held him so tightly that he seemed to be gasping for air. She released him slightly and then went right back to suffocating him with affection.
As Barbarina, Maureen McKay was all sunshine during her initial scenes of Act three. But her famed Act four aria, “L’ho perduta” revealed her fragility, her singing soft and weepy; the final F natural descrescendoed into the final three notes, leaving the audience feeling her great great.
As Don Basilio, Keith Jameson delivered bright tone, contrasting with the gruffness of sound in Paul Corona’s Antonio. Tony Stevenson’s Don Curzio made a brief appearance, but he matched the Count’s conniving nature in the recitative that preceded the sextet and delivered a knockout reaction to the Count ripping up his check at the end of the sextet.
In the pit, Cornelius Meister didn’t have a particularly distinguished performance. His tempi were solid and he was very in tune with his singers, but he didn’t seem to have the same sense of balance with the orchestra. The ensemble sounded best when the orchestration was bare with either only strings or winds. But when he had to balance the two sections, the string sound was washed away and barely recognizable. When he had to bring in the horns, it became too brass-heavy, resulting in a banda-like sound. This was most noticeable at the climax of the overture.
In other sections, the accompanying figures were more prominent than the main melodic material, as was the case during the introduction to “Porgi amor.” Rather than a gentle introduction to the Countess’ character, the effect was messy and unsteady. He seemed to right the ship more in the second half of the performance with the imbalance in the ensemble less present overall. Ultimately, the orchestra felt like an accompaniment for the singers rather than a crucial partner in the musical conversation.
This cast has four more performances, all of which are bound to be a hilarious romp. It is undeniably one of the must-see shows playing at the Met right now.