If one thinks comic book fans are a tad over-zealous in filmed approaches to their tight-wearing heroes, then a quick glance at reactions from many American opera fans, to contemporary opera, will reveal that those Marvel boys are a subdued lot. American opera fans tend to approach staged/filmed opera the way some fundamentalist Christians approach the good book, insisting on face value inerrancy and or the King James Version. So impassioned, or insistent on orthodox and/or period staging, are such American Opera fans that their first line of attack is to typically spew the over-used, tiresome, and oh so predictable “EURO-TRASH” slur. The idea, for those inclined, is to keep the composer locked in his or her own boxed time and, thus, shut the composer off to newer generations and fresh interpretations (Traditional Shakespeare fans are almost as bad). However, Mozart is still a vital voice in music, regardless of his worshippers. It is no accident that opera in Europe is far bigger, far more attended, and better supported than it is here in the states where the opera “fans” make a false religion out of the art form, slap an institutional sheen on it and transform breathing theater into a museum piece.
Over two hundred years after its debut, The Marriage of Figaro remains an extraordinarily three dimensional work, which does not flinch from portraying deeply flawed characters. Numerous filmed versions of the opera have been released, but the 2006 Salzburg entry may be the most uncompromising to date. There is, of course, Peter Sellars mid-nineties version which, aptly, takes place in Trump Tower, but the line-up of the 2006 film should be a yield sign to opera fundamentalists. The conductor, Nikolas Harnoncourt, has a well-earned reputation for “weirdness.” In that, Harnoncourt,an Austrian by birth, possibly even surpasses that typically eccentric German music director Michael Gielen. Harnoncourt lead several of the M22 projects but Le nozze di Figaro is Harnoncourt at his most personal and insightful.Harnoncourt’s is not porcelain conducting here; he mirrors the disconcerting underside of Da Ponte’s libretto as interpreted by star director Claus Guth. Harnoncourt’s seasoned pacing reinforces the nuanced poignancy, beauty, mature humor, and prospective, life-affirming drama of this music. Thankfully, Harnoncourt does not try to coat Mozart’s writing with a kind of Rossini whipped topping.
Oddly,the romantics,more often than not,dismissed Mozart as one of those “powdered wig composers” and seemed oblivious to his remarkably progressive (and darker) hued works. While Figaro has comic elements, like Cosi Fan Tutti (the final and most complex of the Mozart/Da Ponte operas), it embraces every facet of human complexity. If one dispenses of pre-conceived notions and honestly approaches Da Ponte’s libretto (which ‘fans’ are rarely disposed to do) then the context, rather than the period content, of the opera prevails. Guth, Harnoncourt, Christian Schmidt (whose stage design is exemplary),a uniformly excellent cast, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the production team do just that.
It is Susanna and Cherubino here who are the eyes of Figaro’s storm. Anna Netrebko (a bonafide opera sex symbol,but hardly an artistic lightweight)as Susanna is objectified, but conflicted. She is pragmatically determined and,through sheer cunning, she attains her goal. The always interesting Christine Schafer is assurance personified as the shell-shocked, testosterone spitfire Cherubino. Both women vividly resonate in their acting and singing. The men are nearly equal. Bo Skovhus paradoxically evokes repulsion and sympathy as the clammy Count Almaviva, who is consumed with fragile, Poe-like compulsion for the servant he truly seems to love, yet cannot fully attain. Ildebrando D’ Arcangelo’s gallant, mercurial Figaro scorches suggested impotence, yet he never loses his admirable splendor.
Guth and company do not flinch from the libretto’s displays of ruthless, erotic intrigue and the director employs poetic liberties: Susanna and the Count are already engaged in an affair. The Count has been secretly claiming his privilege with Susanna. Susanna is attracted to the Count, but she loves and is protective of the sensitive Figaro. She wants to put an end to the Count’s sexual liberties with her, and her recourse to the cessation lies in the Countess. This Figaro is comic in a Bergmanesque manner: the humor is birthed from expansive contemplation. Chrubino’s angelic double (another poetic liberty) sets the motion, manipulating and advancing the unfolding, dizzying range of sweltering agendas, like chaotic lines in a diagram (at the end of the third act). These agendas reveal the inherent hunger of the characters. This is no vegetarian Figaro but its sets, hauntingly deprived of furniture, echo the decay of the aristocratic, cannibalistic mindset.
This probably should not be an introductory Figaro. Nor should the 2009 Netherlands Figaro, which features the resplendent Danielle de Niese as Susanna and is set, by directors Jossi Wieler and Sergio Morabito,inside a car showroom (it is actually not as ill-fitting, whacky as it sounds and really is winningly charming). If one needs to start off with a more traditional staging, then there are two equally strong recommendations: Oliver Mille’s 1994 version with Alison Hagley as Susanna (Hagley may be the quintessential Susanna on film) and Constanze Backes’ memorable rendition of Barbarina’s cavatina (an example of Mozart’s ability to take a simple song, about a lost pin, and turn into sublime poetry). The more recent 2008 version by David McVicar and featuring Miah Persson as Susanna has almost become a universal favorite among traditionalists. However, Guth’s Figaro restores the provocative sense of danger to Mozart’s greatest opera. It is a memorable, shattering and potent alternative to an over-crowded field of staid productions.