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SF Opera’s New Figaro Sets the Mind Soaring

October 14, 2019

San Francisco Opera

It might seem odd to begin with the lighting, in praising San Francisco Opera’s splendid new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. But in its chiaroscuro play of sunny all-American optimism and the shadow realms of sexual jealousy, shiny new creature comforts and nightmare visions of self-doubt, Jane Cox’s design articulates the wit, momentum, period resonance, and deeply rooted insights of this deeply satisfying evening.

Those values are embedded everywhere. Michael Cavanagh’s direction is a marvel of intelligence, visual acuity, and human insight and empathy. Erhard Rom’s 18th-century American manor house set, a toy box deconstruction that takes shape during the overture and gains three-dimensional depth and stature through the action, serves as an ideal vessel and an architectural delight in its own right. Constance Hoffman’s costumes, whether servant-class ordinary, upper-crust opulent, or delectably satiric, are hand-in-glove perfection.

The orchestra, under conductor Henrik Nánási’s alert and contouring baton, played with keen attention to the score’s shifting terrain, dynamic nuances, and colorful detail at the Friday, Oct. 11 opening-night performance. The opera’s numerous vocal ensembles, which can come off as perfunctory stand-and-delivers, were notably well supported, with tempos and supple phrases animating those scenes. That alone is a signal of the musical excellence on offer.

The cast comes through with performances dramatically and musically attuned to finely realized characterization, vocal élan, and the class distinctions worked into the grain of this Figaro. Baritone Levente Molnár makes Count Almaviva both a vain house tyrant and a man tormented by his own urges. His voice lurches and capers marvelously, now sensually self-absorbed, now congested in pique. As his often ill-served wife, Rosina, soprano Nicole Heaston balances dignity, grief, and mettle. Her mordant meditation on love’s anguish, “Dove sono,” is a musical peak.

Soprano Jeanine De Bique plays the betrothed servant Susanna with a blend of perky ebullience and watchfulness. Her singing deepens into something quietly lustrous along the way. What bass-baritone Michael Sumuel lacks in vocal muscle as Figaro he makes up for in his brash but vulnerable journey toward marital bliss. Mezzo Serena Malfi, in the trouser role of Cherubino, rallies from a somewhat pedestrian start to revel in the page’s cross-dressing confusion and boyishly fickle attachments.

Mezzo Catherine Cook (as Marcellina. the ludicrous lover turned loving mother), bass James Creswell (as the addled-headed Bartolo), and tenor Greg Fedderly (the gossipy fop Basilio) make this comic trio welcome throughout. Even the servants, who eavesdrop, freeze in place as if to disappear in plain sight, or passively aggressively rebel with flower petals as weapons, contribute. The all-woman chorus, in another stroke of Cavanagh’s sparkling direction, turns a flower presentation scene into an apt miniature of status-seeking comedy.

What emerges, gradually and comprehensively, is a fully formed world that’s both timelessly true to human nature and cannily rooted in its Colonial American setting. In librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte’s whirligig plot, adapted from the Beaumarchais play, lovers and would-be lovers play out a dizzying round of hopeful seductions and hopelessly doomed schemes. By placing the action in a young America bent on self-creation — the painting scaffolds and endlessly rearranged furniture attest to it here — Cavanagh and his collaborators give this romantic roundelay a new dimension.

Like the country itself, these men and women are both frantically and earnestly in quest of a new union, a communal meeting of minds and hearts to seek a communal future. This Figaro is both delicious to hear and often — and authentically — laugh-out-loud funny. But the humor, like the pathos of these lovers trying to find their way to each other, lingers in a fresh way here. We’re seeing ourselves, both where we came from and who we are now.

Like all great art, The Marriage of Figaro is somehow always contemporary, perpetually reinventing itself. However they were cast, it’s hard to see the servants Figaro and Susanna played by black performers and not think of America’s fraught racial legacy. When Molnár’s Count Almaviva saunters onto the stage in a gaping bathrobe (although he’s clothed underneath), the self-entitled preening of a Harvey Weinstein comes to mind (to this one, anyway). And aren’t the women of Figaro, in their refusal to sit back and take it from the presumptuous men, honorary members of the #MeToo movement?

Cavanagh makes no anachronistic references, even slyly winking ones, in his Figaro. But when a production is operating in such a powerfully integrated way as this one is, seeing and finding layers and overtones is all but inevitable.

Going forward, audiences will be invited to knit together new associations and meanings. The Marriage of the Figaro inaugurates a trilogy of Cavanagh-directed productions of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas. All three will be set in this same house, albeit transformed. Next year’s Così fan tutte takes place in the 1930s. Don Giovanni, two seasons out, is future-set in 2090.

As long as we’re there, was that somewhat ghoulish downstage lighting of the company, at the end of Figaro, a faint foreshadowing of the fate that awaits the lecherous title character in Don Giovanni?

Just wondering. Opera this good sets one’s imagination flying.

Steven Winn is a San Francisco based free-lance writer and critic and frequent City Arts & Lectures interviewer. His work has appeared in Art News, California, Humanities, Manhattan, Symphony Magazine and The San Francisco Chronicle.