With a mostly terrific cast, Lyric Opera’s “Figaro” closes season in style

March 01, 2010

Joyce DiDonato, (Cherubino), Mariusz Kwiecien (the Count) and Danielle de Niese (Susanna) cavort in the Lyric Opera's "Marriage of Figaro." Photo: Dan Rest

Is there anything more miraculous in all music than Le nozze di Figaro? The wealth of unforgettable melody, the wit and ingenuity of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, and, especially, the effervescent spirit and depth of Mozart’s music. For all it’s surface frivolity, 224 years after its premiere, Mozart’s opera still has much to say about love, fidelity, forgiveness, and the eternal folly of the human heart.

The Lyric Opera of Chicago is closing its season with Mozart’s celebrated comedy, which opened with a matinee performance on Sunday. With the Sir Peter Hall-John Bury production still looking handsome, and a largely excellent cast— including two outstanding performances— the Lyric’s Mozart wraps the season on a high note.

More than most productions, this Lyric cast is dominated by Mariusz Kwiecien as the volatile, philandering Count. One can go a long time before hearing the tortuous Vedro, mentr’io sospiro delivered with this kind of technical ease and forceful malevolence. With his aristocratic bearing and saturnine presence, the Polish baritone owns this role like no other singer today, and his refined, commanding vocalism brought out the Count’s bluster as well as a surprising, touching vulnerability at the opera’s coda.

As the maid, Susanna, the object of his non-platonic affections, Danielle de Niese was the other standout. In a role that soprano ingenues often tend to walk through, de Niese showed her vaunted star quality, her flashing-eyed, vixenish Susanna making it clear that Figaro probably has good reason to keep tabs on his flirtatious fiancee.

If her animated expressions and vivid characterization at times flirted with excess, the charismatic soprano was consistently alive to the text, responding to every twist and turn of da Ponte’s rapid-fire action. De Niese sang beautifully, her bright, youthful voice technically faultless, with her expressive Deh! vieni, non tardar a highlight of the performance.

After tackling Mephistopheles in the second cast of Faust for the Lyric earlier this season, Kyle Ketelsen also showed himself an admirable Mozartian as the wily Figaro. Ketelsen has the vocal weight for the role, if not always the agility, as with a rather short-breathed Aprite un po’quegli occhi. Otherwise, the Iowa-born bass-baritone was impressive, and proved a fine partner for de Niese’s feisty Susanna, his youthful vigor and firmly focused singing deftly balancing the comedy and vocalism.

Joyce DiDonato was suitably boyish as the hormonally gifted page, Cherubino. Considering this is one of her signature roles, the mezzo’s Non so più was surprisingly erratic Sunday with DiDonato swallowing too many phrase ends, but she made up the balance with a quite lovely and nuanced Voi che sapete.

Anne Schwanewilms as the Countess and Danielle de Niese as Susanna. Photo: Dan Rest.

Of the principals, only the Countess of Anne Schwanewilms proved a disappointment. The German soprano was a regal yet animated presence, entering more into the comedy than most. Yet vocally Schwanewilms appeared to be either under the weather or experiencing a vocal crisis. Her soprano was thin of tone and precarious on top, the Countess’s high lines often inaudible in ensembles. While she managed an adequate Porgi amor, her Dove sono was disastrous, the singer’s voice giving out completely near the end. Schwanewilms sang the rest of the performance, including a respectable Sull’aria, but one has to wonder if she is in strong enough vocal estate to finish this month-long run. (A Lyric spokesperson said Monday that Schwanewilms was suffering from bronchitis.)

The comic comprimario roles were well taken with Lauren Curnow as the battle-axe Marcellina, Keith Jameson, a better sung Basilio than usual, and Andrea Silvestrelli, a booming if raw-toned Bartolo. Angela Mannino, again, proved a bit too precious as Barbarina, and Philip Kraus was a decidedly aggressive Antonio. Director Herbert Kellner made most of the hectic stage traffic go smoothy in a work where music and comic timing are everything.

Sir Andrew Davis conducted with his usual Mozartian skill, flexibility, and finesse, with tempos perhaps a bit more stately than in the past. All optional Act 4 cuts were taken, surprising for a house that has traditionally given its audiences the full Mozartian Monty in this opera.

Le nozze di Figaro runs through March 27. www.lyricopera.org; 312-332-2244.

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