Is “Figaro” the perfect opera?

Johannes Mannov (Count Almaviva), Leena Chopra (Barbarina), and the chorus.

Johannes Mannov (Count Almaviva), Leena Chopra (Barbarina), and the chorus. Rozarii Lynch Photo.

In his informative essay, Speight Jenkins calls “The Marriage of Figaro” “the perfect opera…The opera has, in six of its eight arias, as famous solo pieces as exist as well as many brilliant ensembles. Its story is involving but can be understood, and the music unfailingly illuminates and expands the text.” While the perfection of Mozart’s design for “Figaro” can be debated, the second cast line up assembled for the Seattle Opera’s current performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” is up to the task of breathing life into this “perfect opera.”

“Figaro’s” story is complicated, but employs many standard comedic gags that point the listener in the right directions – disguises, ageism, infidelity, mistaken identity, and of course cross dressing. Cherubino, the Count’s teenage page, is played by a mezzo-soprano dressed up as an adolescent boy. Even by today’s comedic standards, I couldn’t help but giggle a little when Sarah Castle first comes on stage playing Cherubino and sings “Non so piu cosa son”

Basically, Figaro and Susanna are set to get married when Susanna reveals the Count has eyes for her. Marcellina wants to force Figaro to marry her. The Countess laments that the Count has lost interest in her. And everyone wants to trick everyone else, and as Artur Woodley sings wonderfully as Dr. Bartolo in “La Vendetta,” wants revenge. Four acts later and the opera resolves itself with Figaro realizing Susanna is madly in love with him and the Count seeking forgiveness from the Countess who caught him red handed trying to seduce Susanna – a faux one at that.

Overall, the second cast in Sunday’s performance of “Figaro” is strong. For me, high points include a sympathetically sung Countess by Jessica Jones and a Elizabeth Caballero as a lithe Susanna. In fact, I can’t imagine the performance would have been as successful without the effort of these two sopranos. They were well matched and when they weren’t on stage I was eagerly anticipating their return. Joyce Castle was a witty Marcellina who early on plots against Figaro only to find out she is his mother. Matched with Marcellina is Artur Woodley’s hefty but funny portrayal as Dr. Bartolo. As Barbarina, Leena Chopra’s moment comes much too late in the performance. Chopra plaintively sings “L’ho perduta” at the start of Act Four. Hopefully, Jenkins will bring Chopra back in the future.

Unfortunately, Nicolas Cavallier’s portrayal as Figaro and Johannes Mannov’s rendition of Count Almaviva didn’t grab me in the same way as their female counterparts did. These two baritones sang well, but both seemed one dimensional. Figaro and the Count are complex, scheming characters, who are chauvinistic but can also be vulnerable when it comes to the women they love. In Sunday’s performance, we only got to see the chauvinistic. Another low point for me was the staging. The decorative panels were small compared to the McCaw Hall stage. The current run of the opera uses an older production rather than the newer one that had been planned but was scrapped because of the recession.

Gags and difficult plot aside, Mozart is a master of the complex. Focus too much attention on the ridiculous and you will miss Mozart’s expert way with ensembles and multiple voices. In “Figaro” there isn’t one role, one scene, or even one aria the opera depends on. “Figaro” depends on a cohesive unit of capable singers. Anyone in attendance Sunday afternoon would have heard a balanced cast of singers that could be at the top of the bill in their own right.

“The Marriage of Figaro” runs until May 16, 2009.

More on “Figaro” here .

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