Opera Australia 2022 Review: The Marriage of Figaro
Stacey Alleaume, Tommaso Barea Lead a Joyous Rendition of Mozart’s MasterpieceBy Gordon Williams
Photo Credit: Prudence Upton
Opera Australia’s latest production for their 2022 summer season, a revival by Andy Morton of David McVicar’s 2015 production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” opened at Sydney Opera House on January 27th which, according to Opera Australia’s publicity, is Mozart’s 266th birthday.
January 27th is also the day after Australia Day, the annual holiday which commemorates the 1788 raising of the Union Jack over Sydney Cove behind Bennelong Point, the promontory on which the Opera House sits. It is funny to think that Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” which arguably plays out against the historical backdrop of a European society in decline, is roughly contemporaneous with European Australia—or the European invasion of Gadigal Country in Indigenous narratives.
On October 14th 1787, the same day “The Marriage of Figaro” was restaged in Prague in place of the scheduled premiere of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni”, the ‘First Fleet’ had landed at Cape Town, South Africa, on its way to New Holland: Australia.
Historical musings seemed appropriate while watching this production. The set, costume designs and lighting—by Jenny Tiramani and David Finn, respectively—had an almost documentary realism to them. The excellence of this aspect of the production was, in fact, the first feature of the performance which leaped out. There was such pleasure in viewing sets, costumes and effects of light which meticulously recreated realistic renderings of 17th century Dutch paintings: now 17th century paintings in three dimensions!
Other aspects raised questions about interpreting Mozart’s opera as an historical artifact, however. Do people go to see “The Marriage of Figaro” because they’re interested in witnessing the portrayal of an older society on the edge of change? Is it even actually on the edge of change? This production and Beaumarchais’ original play on which the opera is based are set in the 17th century, not the 18th when that society genuinely was threatened by impending collapse and irrevocable change. Is the deliberate attempt to create distance from historical considerations what attracts an audience? Or is it more likely that other timeless qualities bring a modern-day viewer into the theater? Luckily, this production certainly had these latter qualities in abundance as well.
First off, it was as funny and as fresh as any up-to-date interpretation can be. Act one generated humor through the large number of entrances and exits, facilitated by a set which also showed the hallway from which the characters entered or exited. Comings and goings: French farceurs knew something about this comedic device, and these were delightfully tied in here with the sort of detailed characterization that provides wit through recognition.
Figaro—baritone Tommaso Barea—storms off having discovered that Count Almaviva has less-than-noble reasons for moving Figaro and his fiancée, Susanna—soprano Stacey Alleaume—into the room adjoining his. He throws his hands up in an irritated ‘Bah!’ gesture as he storms out, stumbling across Dr. Bartolo—bass Richard Anderson—and Marcellina—mezzo-soprano Sian Sharp—walking innocently (at least their intentions are unknown at this point) along the hallway outside. It is a funny scene, at least as much because, even across so many centuries, we recognize such irritation as Figaro has given vent to.
There was also something hilariously insolent in the leitmotif of servants spying at keyholes or caught eavesdropping behind closed doors. Charles Osborne questioned the revolutionary interpretations of this opera—premiered only three years before the epoch-changing storming of the Bastille in France—in his book “The Complete Operas of Mozart.” The constant presence of casually nosey and un-fazed servants in this aristocratic household, however, smartly conveyed the idea that this society’s hierarchical structures are not as formidable as they first appear. After all, the decline of custom is a key ingredient of the plot. The lecherous Count wants to use the occasion of Figaro and Susanna’s wedding to resurrect jus primae noctis: the mediaeval right of the lord to his servant’s wife on their wedding night. It is a ‘right’ that everyone on the Almaviva estate had assumed the Count had consigned to the trashcan of history, and a tradition which he will, admittedly, fail in resurrecting.
Though the sets and lighting effects were realistic representations of Count and Countess Almaviva’s Sevillian manor house at various times of the day, Susanna delivered her final number, “Giunse alfin il momento… Deh, vieni, non tardar, oh gioia bella,” before a curtain pulled across the scene. This effectively broke the sense of historical realism at the very moment when we needed confirmation that this is a timeless story: a meditation, even, on fidelity, honor, love, and compassion. Australian-Mauritian soprano Stacey Alleaume beautifully conveyed the maturing in a single day of a character she had represented as formidably feisty in earlier acts. In this production she came across as a character with genuinely sympathetic emotions.
It’s All About the Music
Of course, people continue to go to “The Marriage of Figaro,” even 236 years after its premiere, primarily for the music, and Italian conductor Andrea Molino’s reading of the score honored the timeless humor of Mozart’s conception right from the very opening. With cutting staccato cadential figures and a comedy of exaggerated sforzato accents, the interpretation was a perfect homage. There was a wonderful briskness to Molino’s reading of the score overall. One had barely a chance to catch one’s breath before being launched into the next number.
Barely had any of the characters digested the fact that Figaro is actually Marcellina’s son—and there goes the Count’s hope that Marcellina will sue Figaro for breach of promise and smooth this particular path to Susanna—before all were being hurtled onwards. Molino’s interpretation was a wonderful musical reflection of the ‘madcap day,’ to quote the principal English title of Beaumarchais’ play on which Lorenzo da Ponte based his libretto.
While on the subject of the orchestra, fortepianist Siro Battaglin’s continuo playing added his own witticisms to the musical “tapestry.” An echo of “Rule Britannia,” for example, when the Count announces his proposed appointment as ambassador to London, or even just pert rising notes under a seemingly innocuous line like: “Why, it’s Susanna of course!” Of course? one now wonders.
In addition to Alleaume, a terrific cast carried this wonderful musical comedy. Italian baritone Tommaso Barea gave us a Figaro who was easy to sympathize with. “What a charming lord,” he sang upon discovering the real reason the Count has given him and Susanna a bedroom right next to his, and Barea conveyed the sarcasm in the space of a phrase that began sweetly and ended in dripping bitterness. His was a Figaro who wore his heart on his sleeve, conveying perhaps even slight exasperation at the love-sick Cherubino in the burred ‘r’s of his accusation “Narcissito” in the celebrated aria “Non più andrai.” And as the young boy Cherubino, Iranian-Armenian mezzo-soprano Agnes Sarkis credibly conveyed the overheated enthusiasms of a youthful male in her featured numbers. “Tell me what love is, what can it be” she sang—“Voi, che sapete”—and her prominent ‘s’s seemed to convey a leaning-in on the urgency of this question.
Russian soprano Ekaterina Morozova portrayed the dignified Countess Almaviva, who is the emotional foundation stone of this work. One truly felt for her, isolated as she was upstage, at the beginning of Act Two. The youthful freshness of her voice made the fact that she no longer held her husband’s attention all-the-more poignant. There was a wonderful simplicity in her aria “Dove sono” as she asked what had happened to her husband’s vows.
As Count Almaviva, Italian baritone Mario Cassi conveyed a nuanced range of characteristics within the generally unsympathetic tones in which Da Ponte paints his character. There was lecherousness: “I want you to be happy” he sings wooingly, almost delivering his “felice” into Susanna’s ear. But we could also share in his glee as he presented the annoying Cherubino with a commission in the Almaviva regiment and dispatched him with a sotto voce “You weren’t expecting that.” Well, at least I laughed.
Of the “supporting characters,” it was refreshing to see a Marcellina—played by mezzo-soprano Sian Sharp—whom we could believe Susanna might suspect of turning Figaro’s head. “Decrepit old Sibyl, she makes me laugh” sang Susanna in their Act One argument, though it had to be out of longstanding hostility that she said that, for it could not be present observation. It raised laughter from the audience when Marcellina and Dr. Bartolo discovered that Figaro was actually their son, although it was a plot twist as old as the books: which was a testament to how Sharp carried her role. And alongside Dr. Bartolo, played by bass Richard Anderson, she conveyed real villainy. It was a nice touch when Sharp interpolated a single “sì” after the first statement of Anderson’s “Vendetta aria;” it confirmed just how much the two were in cahoots.
Perhaps the profoundest theme of “The Marriage of Figaro” is forgiveness. At the end, the Countess forgives her constantly-philandering husband and his roving eye. Commentators remark on the way Mozart’s music elevates what is perfunctory in Da Ponte’s text. But might there always still be a risk that the generosity comes on too quickly? It was certainly easy to believe that such generosity existed in Morozova’s Countess, and perhaps it depends on the length and latent tension of the pause before the Countess sings “Più docile sono, e dico di sì.” But in Act Two, when the Count demanded to know who was hiding in the Countess’s closet, he slapped her. Don’t get me wrong: Cassi’s Count was a fine, deep characterization and, on the plus side, that slap signaled the deadly seriousness with which this production took Mozart and Da Ponte’s drama of interpersonal relationships: it is only that once the blow is dealt, that slap may make the Count irredeemable, at least to a modern audience. What if the Count had thought better of it? How would that have changed our impression left by the conclusion?
But this is just one question mark in a production that tunefully and good-humoredly reminded us of the timelessness of human behavior and interpersonal politics, as we sat in an opera house where once there was sandstone woodland untrodden by Europeans.