Chemistry of two principals sparks San Francisco Opera’s delightful “Figaro”

September 27, 2010

Luca Pisaroni as Figaro and Danielle de Niese as Susanna showed great chemistry in San Francisco Opera's "Le nozze di Figaro." Photo: Cory Weaver.

The ebb and flow of voice types continues to be of the great mysteries of the ages. Who can account for why great Verdi sopranos are so rare today yet we seem to live in an abundance of extraordinarily accomplished Mozart stylists?

San Francisco Opera’s production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, heard Saturday night was notably well served by a trio of charismatic young singers at the top of their forms. Allied to sterling music direction by Nicola Luisotti, SFO’s staging is providing the city by the bay with an engaging and delightful Figaro from start to finish.

More than two centuries after its premiere, Mozart’s and Lorenzo da Ponte’s Marriage of Figaro remains fresh, witty, and eternally relevant about the complicated romantic and sexual relations between men and women and the eternal folly of the human heart.

Is there a more charismatic Susanna around today than Danielle de Niese? In her company debut, the American soprano showed why she is one of our most exciting young singers. De Niese’s pure, flexible soprano has surprising reserves of power and every note was audible, even in Mozart’s busiest ensembles. Her luminous, beautifully rendered Deh vieni, non tardar was a model of inspired Mozart vocalism.

With her flashing eyes and pneumatic figure, de Niese’s vixenish maid was a fine foil for Luca Pisaroni as her betrothed Figaro. The two singers are both real stage animals with great mutual chemistry, and  a monologist’s comic timing.

The Italian bass-baritone is in the Ezio Pinza tradition of singers with dark substantial voices and striking agility. His Se vuol ballare was as gracefully sung as it was pointed with acidy class resentment. At times in the first two acts Pisaroni’s Figaro was almost too dour and volatile, unsmiling and aggressively pushing Cherubino about in a way that bordered on abusive.

Yet Pisaroni lightened up for the comedy of Act 3 and delivered a quite hilarious and brilliantly sung Aprite un po’quegli occhi’ in Act 4.

Ellie Dehn as the Countess and Lucas Meachem as the Count in SFO's "Le nozze di Figaro." Photo: Cory Weaver

Also making an impressive SFO debut was Ellie Dehn as the Countess.  The slender soprano has the right regal bearing for the philandering Almaviva’s long-suffering spouse, yet she also entered into the comedy surely as well. Possessed of a lovely radiant soprano Dehn’s two arias were highlights of the evening her spacious hushed Dove sono reducing the vast house to complete silence.

The wild card in the deck of principals was Lucas Meachem’s Count. The portly baritone has the bluster for the role but lacks an essential aristocratic quality; indeed, Meachem’s Count is more of a clown than a dangerous villain, accidentally hammering his finger when attempting to open his wife’s closet. Vocally, Meachem was solid, but not in the class of his costars, the baritone not quite able to get around the difficulties of his Act 3 aria.

Michele Losier was an admirable Cherubino and proved genuinely funny as the hormonally gifted teen page. She clearly has the vocal gifts, yet her Non so piu was unevenly projected Saturday night and Voi che sapete nicely rendered but undermined by too much movement and stage busyness. Sara Gartland was a fine Barbarina, with a well sung aria

The traditional Act 4 cuts were taken, understandable with the opera still running four hours, but unfortunate, with such vividly characterized comprimarios as  John Del Carlo’s big-voiced Bartolo, Greg Fedderley’s amusing Basilio and Catherine Cook’s Marcellina.

John Copley’s traditional staging worked well, with a more down-market abode for the Almavivas with a decidedly Spanish flavor, though the split-level set for Act 1 suggested more a Mexican saloon in an old Western film than second-tier Seville royalty. More successful were the unorthodox patio setting for Act 3 and a striking garden design for Act 4 with its towering cypresses.

The performance benefited enormously by Nicola Luisotti’s terrific conducting. The SFO music director is a supremely stylish Mozartian, and drew lithe yet full-bodied playing from the orchestra while giving spacious room for his singers’ freely expressive arias. Conducting from the harpsichord, Luisotti also managed to provide clever and imaginative continuo work. Try to catch all the musical quotations he manages to seamlessly work in.

San Francisco Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro runs through October 22. For the Oct. 10, 16 and 22 performances, Kostas Smoriginas will take the role of Figaro, with Heidi Stober as Susanna and Trevor Scheunemann as Count Almaviva.

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