Crass, incompetent direction and variable cast make for an embarrassing “Figaro” revival at the Met
Reviving opera productions at a repertory house is a tricky undertaking. Directors almost never return season after season to work with new casts, and whatever rhyme or reason a production may have had on its opening night soon evaporates into bare-bones blocking and traffic management.
A case in point: Jonathan Miller’s 1998 staging of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, which was revived at the Metropolitan Opera on Friday evening. Is it even fair or accurate to attach Miller’s name to this production fourteen years on? Under his direction, and despite the spotlight-grabbing antics of his Susanna and Figaro (Cecilia Bartoli and Byrn Terfel), the Nozze production afforded the characters pith and dignity while playing up the class tensions that corrode the lustrous surface of Mozart and Da Ponte’s wise and humane opera buffa. The same cannot be said for the current Met revival and the stage direction of Gregory Keller.
The production’s physical trappings are intact. Peter J. Davison’s graceful sets, mottled and slightly askew, tell of a society shifting under the weight of revolution. James Acheson’s costumes are handsome, and Mark McCullough’s lighting has a melancholy beauty, especially during the Countess’s Act II levee.
But the action unfolds with all the subtlety and depth of an episode of Friends. Skirts are hitched up. Backsides twitch to dance music. Bosoms and crotches are grabbed. Susanna and the Countess even exchange a sonorous high five in the opera’s closing moments. To be sure, Nozze and the Beaumarchais play on which it is based are sex comedies depicting a “madcap day,” but there is a vast happy medium between tippy-toes prudery and the anything-goes awfulness served up in this Met revival. The show as presented on opening night was vile.
A fair share of the blame lies with Maija Kovalevska’s Countess. She has a gorgeous voice, with something of the bright darkness and pearly shimmer of Angela Gheorghiu’s timbre. She also has the Romanian diva’s queenly unconcern with the fellow in the pit waving the stick: soprano and maestro never quite agreed on tempos for her arias, and in place of a trill in Dove sono she offered a dismissive gesture and roll of the eyes at the footlights.
Her musical foibles, though, were less grave than her dramatic shortcomings. She played Rosina as a vulgar and spiteful minx, failing to suggest why the Countess complains of the indignity of having her marital troubles known to servants, or how this fragile and fallible woman can rise to the opera’s sublime act of grace and healing, the forgiveness of her errant husband.
As her wayward spouse, Gerald Finley sang and acted splendidly. His tone was warm and compact, his every word uttered with punch, and his person radiated an arrogant and covetous sense of entitlement that slowly unravelled as the plot hurtled Count Almaviva to his final humiliation. There is no more searching and consistently superb performer in opera today than Finley, and he deserves far better than this now-puerile staging.
Mojca Erdmann, the Met’s Susanna, has a big Deutsche Grammophon recording contract, a small voice, and an approximate command of Italian. What musical charms she has are lost in a house as large as the Met and a part as relatively low as Figaro’s betrothed. That she so often sang dead center and at the lip of the stage may be a result of directorial incompetence, or it may reflect the fact that her pretty tones are otherwise hard to hear.
Christine Schäfer served up some ravishing soft singing in Non so più, but she, too, was often inaudible in a role that does not play to her considerable strengths. Sweet-faced, petite, and utterly lovable, her Cherubino was more a child than a lad on the cusp of adulthood, making for squirms during the heavy-handed flirtation between the page boy and the Countess.
As Figaro, Ildar Abdrazakov was in bloomingly healthy voice, and he acted with his customary alertness and panache. Maurizio Muraro was an unusually strong Dr. Bartolo, his tone rich and resonant in all but the highest reaches of the role. Self-possessed and, for once, with a modicum of dignity, his Bartolo was a credible threat to Figaro and Susanna. Ashley Emerson sang Barberina’s pin aria enchantingly and held the stage like a seasoned trouper, though she, like Schäfer’s Cherubino, looked more fit for daycare than for sexual intrigue.
Margaret Lattimore, John Graham-Hall, Philip Cokorinos, Tony Stevenson, Lei Xu, and Irene Roberts sang well in smaller roles, and Dan Saunders played the secco recitatives with elegance and sparkle. David Robertson’s conducting was bluntly efficient: the performance seemed underrehearsed, with missed entries and ensemble problems, and it was an off night for the Met’s normally exemplary brass players.
Act II ended with a catfight between Susanna and Marcellina. Poor Mozart and Da Ponte, and poor spectators who sat through this bottom-feeding Figaro.
Le nozze di Figaro runs through November 17. metoperafamily.org; 212-362-6000.