Opéra National de Paris 2021-22 Review: Le Nozze di Figaro

Luca Pisaroni, Ying Fang, Maria Bengtsson, Christopher Maltman Shine in Questionable Production of Mozart Masterpiece

By Mauricio Villa
(Credit: Miguel Lorenzo Mikel Ponce)

“Le Nozze di Figaro” was one of many productions staged by Opéra national de Paris (Paris Opera), which was severely affected by the pandemic, suffering from the cancellation of several performances and multiple changes in the cast with covers stepping in at very short notice. Before the February 3 performance in the Palais Garnier, it was announced to the audience that many performers had been replaced at the eleventh hour while some of the soloists were singing wearing masks. The house issued an apology for the inconvenience. The audience reacted to this announcement with loud applause.

Calling All Covers

Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni was one of the singers not originally cast. Figaro is one of his signature roles: he has performed it worldwide since his operatic debut of the role in 2001. It was a luxury that such a Mozart specialist could step in. His diction, fraseo, use of dynamics, and ability to effortlessly and organically sing the recitatives are mesmerizing. Therefore, he has total control of the score and is deeply committed to each scene. His voice is ideal for a role written for a low voice between the middle and higher register. His timbre is warm and round, while his vibrato is balanced and even throughout. But he has problems in his upper range. His high Fs in the duet “Se a caso madama” and his first aria, “Se vuol ballare,” sounded uneasy, forced, and with an excess of air. This problem was particularly noticeable when he had to sustain tones higher than D, although his phrasing in the higher register was impeccable. His interpretation of “Non piú andrai” was excellent because, even if the tessitura was high, he was not required to sustain the high notes. The highlight of Pisaroni’s performance was his fourth act aria, “Aprite un po’quegl’occhi,” and it was performed with rage and warm tenderness all at the same time. His interpretation of Figaro was realistic and believable, and although it ended up being a bit plain, it was in line with the rest of the cast.

Chinese soprano Ying Fang portrayed the cunning bride, Susanna. She has a lyrical, round voice and astonishing projection, making her voice bright and ringing. Susanna is a tricky role. It demands a light voice to portray a young woman while at the same time the writing is central and with several descensions to low Cs and As. Fang’s voice was effortless: powerful and sweet all at once. She proved to have a strong middle register while still keeping a lighter sound. Her interpretation of the fourth act aria, “Deh, vieni, non tardar,” was full of emotion and lyricism. Her style was perfect, and her portrayal was strong and determined.

Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson portrayed Countess Almaviva. She has the challenge of beginning her performance with the lyrical and melancholic aria “Porgi, amor,” where Bengtsson showed her expansive legato lines, her total control of dynamics, and her clean attack of notes. She is completely exposed in this aria because of the light orchestration, and her lack of vocal projection was noticeable, especially in the higher register, and her voice sounded distant. However, she had no trouble with the two ascensions to high C on the terzetto in Act two. Her interpretation of her third act aria, “Dove sonno,” was moving and sentimental. But her lack of projection was unfortunately audible during the duet “canzonetta sull’aria,” where her voice sounded small when heard alongside Fang’s powerful lyrical voice.

British baritone Christopher Maltman was another singer who was not originally cast for the production, standing in here to portray lascivious Count Almaviva. Maltman has performed the Count and Don Giovanni frequently, making him no stranger to Mozart. He has a lyrical, bright timbre completely equal throughout his entire range, and he showed no problems with the central writing of this role. He displayed his elegant fraseo and clean, secure attacks of high notes. This was especially clear in the F sharp of his third act aria, “Hai giá vinta la causa…Vedrò mentre io sospiro,” although the coloratura section of the aria was a bit messy. He portrayed an elegant, seductive Count, especially well-realized thanks to the naturalism and realism of the staging.

French-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre played the pants role of Cherubino. She has a sweet, round timbre and a mesmerizing ability for crescendo/diminuendo, proving to be ideal for this ‘teenaged’ character. Her first aria, “Non so piú,” was sung with exquisite delicacy and the famous “Voi che sapete” with amorous intention and gaiety. Her personification of this rebel was astounding: a starry-eyed and lascivious ‘teenager,’ yet above all a realistic impersonation of a naïve ‘boy.’ Wearing sports clothes and a baseball cap, she certainly looked the part. It was hilarious to see her taking selfies in “Justin Bieber” poses with her mobile phone. Desandre studied ballet at a young age, which enabled her to dance perfectly on point during the choir “Ricevete, oh padroncina” in Act three, where Cherubino was dressed as a ballet dancer.

German soprano Dorothea Röschmann was a true gift in the short, supporting role of Marcellina. She has sung as both Susanna and the Countess throughout her career and is consequently no stranger to this opera. Her fourth act aria was cut, as it often is, so her role was limited to short interventions and ensemble numbers, but Röschmann was still able to showcase her potent lyric sound and strong stage presence in these moments.

Russian soprano Kseniia Proshina and Italian tenor Gregory Bonfatti were brilliant in the supporting roles of Barbarina and Bartolo, respectively, singing with adequate style and believable embodiments of their respective characters.

Staging at Odds with Libretto

British artist Netia Jones organized the staging, set, costumes, and video projections. This new production of “Le Nozze di Figaro” explored, once again, the idea of a ‘theatre within a theatre,’ setting the action in the backstage area of Palais Garnier. Jones created realistic reproductions of the soloists and choir’s dressing rooms, which contrasted delightfully with the imaginative decor of the fabricated costuming area and the stage itself. Jones uses projections throughout the show. The aristocratic characters, such as the Count, Countess, Bartolo, and Marcellina, are depicted as opera singers. Susanna is in charge of the wardrobe department, Figaro takes care of wigs, and Barbarina is a member of the choir du ballet.

There is nothing new in this production. The premise of “theater within a theater” and setting the opera in the same theatre in which it is being performed has been profusely done. But the production works; nonetheless, the action is agile, and it is amusing. The problem is that the concept is so distant from the libretto that there are multiple contradictions between what is being sung and what is being physically done onstage. This is a common problem in modern opera. This detachment between libretto and staging makes the plot needlessly confusing. It is hard to believe that Susanna has locked herself inside the bathroom of the Countess’ dressing room, and although the costume changes between Susanna and the Countess in Act four are cleverly done, setting the action on an empty stage does not help with the opera’s narrative of characters hiding and exchanging places in a garden at night. The special effect that showed the real ballet chamber behind the stage of Palais Garnier’s opera house was beautiful because of its design: golden decorations, chandeliers, and mirrors. However, this visual appeal works so well because it evokes the palatial world of the original libretto, as opposed to the imposed narrative of the “theater within a theater.”

The treatment of the scenes and the characterization of the roles were incredibly realistic, so much so that at some points, it felt closer to a drama than to the cheerful comedy based on Beaumarchais’ play. It is true that the plot is political and has social and feminist ideological narratives, but if the staging becomes too self-serious then all the comical twists of the action seem ridiculous. Jones inclined to have the singers in their underwear, and although this novel idea worked very well for Figaro in his first duet with Susana, and when the Countess was changing costumes in Act two, it was somewhat awkward to see Maltman undressing himself during the last section of his third act aria, to finish in his underwear for the final bars of the piece.

Dudamel and Orchestra Rose to the Challenge

The new music director of Paris Opera, Gustavo Dudamel, was in charge of the orchestra. He presented the usual version of the score with the traditional cuts: mostly Don Curzio’s and Marcellina’s arias in Act four. His approach was energetic and he chose the right tempi to preserve the fluidity of this comedy. Comedies demand fast action, in contrast with the dilated tempi of tragedies and dramas. He extracted brightness and harmonic richness from the orchestra. Although there was no noticeable mistake, it would be unfair to critique the orchestra’s labor in any fashion when some musicians had joined at such short notice and with little to no rehearsals. Therefore, one can only praise the effort made by the company to continue performing this new production following all the health scares and new protocols to maintain the safety of the artists, staff, and audience.

The chorus of Paris Opera performed perfectly in the short interventions that they have in this opera. This performance was also streamed live in cinemas all around the world.


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