Mozart would have turned 267 on January 27, and what better way to celebrate than a performance of his immortal The Marriage of Figaro on his birthday? The Canadian Opera Company did just that, opening its winter season last evening with a superb performance of this masterpiece, to a full and very appreciative audience at the Four Seasons Centre.
This Claus Guth Nozze originated at the Salzburg Festival in 2006 with a stellar cast the likes of Anna Netrebko and Bo Skovhus. The production was subsequently acquired by the COC when Salzburg decided to replace it in 2015. Toronto audiences saw it for the first time in 2016, with a superb quartet of principals in Russell Braun, Jane Archibald, Erin Wall, and Josef Wagner.
This time around the cast is equally strong, led by Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Austrian soprano Andrea Carroll (Susanna), Canadian baritone Gordon Bintner (Conte) and Australian soprano Lauren Fagan (Contessa). All top-class artists, to be sure, combining beautiful voices and charismatic stage persona. Opening night was a truly memorable evening of music-making.
For those who need a bit of refreshing, the story deals with a day in the life of the inhabitants of a wealthy household, where the downstairs couple Figaro and Susanna are to tie the knot. That sounds simple enough, except there are plenty of romantic complications. But all’s well that ends well. Considered by many a “perfect opera,” no wonder it’s the fifth most popular opera in the world, based on statistics maintained by the Operabase website.
This Claus Guth production dates from 2006, and it remains controversial. His vision for Nozze is not so much a Mozartian comic romp but a Bergmanesque exploration into the dark side of human nature, one that deals with the inherent conflict between reason and desire. To that end, Guth has created a silent character, Cherubim, amazingly acted by Uli Kirsch. He’s a body double of Cherubino, and a master manipulator who controls the thoughts and actions of all the characters.
The set by Christian Schmidt is idiosyncratic – a stairwell would seem an unlikely candidate for a unit set, albeit with doors and windows for entrances and exits, plus a well-used trap door. This Nozze has the dubious distinction of an opera set without a stick of furniture on stage! No furniture, but no shortage of symbolism, from dead ravens to a wedding gown stuck to the ceiling, not to mention a Figaro lookalike hanging upside down.
What does one make of all this? The key to deciphering Guth’s vision is to not be too literal-minded. There’s a lot of high-energy stage business and sight gags, all choreographed to within an inch of its life. Kudos to the whole ensemble cast for their total commitment, and it was to their credit that the staging worked. It’s definitely not a production for out-of-shape principals. Imagine a superannuated Conte with Cherubim riding on his shoulder while singing “Hai gia vinta la causa” – Ouch!
To be sure, North American opera audiences will likely find this production challenging. While it’s not everyone’s cup of tea, musically, last evening was a total triumph. This is an ensemble opera, and the COC has put together a fabulous cast, with not a weak link. Kudos to all four principals, led by former COC Ensemble member and Oper Frankfurt Fest artist Gordon Bintner. His beautiful, warm baritone and commanding stage persona make him an ideal Conte.
He’s paired with the exceptional Contessa of Australian soprano Lauren Fagan, whose gleaming-toned “Dove sono” elicited huge ovations from the house. Not to be outdone was Austrian soprano Andrea Carroll as a vocally stunning Susanna – her “Deh vieni, non tartar” was among the very best I’ve heard in my 56 years of attending live opera. Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni rounded out the outstanding quartet as an impeccable Figaro.
Several fine singers in supporting roles from the 2016 run returned in this revival. Huge cheers to American mezzo Emily Fons as a beautifully sung and totally believable Cherubino. Also making welcome returns were Robert Pomakov (Bartolo), Michael Colvin (Basilio), and Doug MacNaughton (Antonio). Unable to join in the reunion was American mezzo Helene Schneiderman (Marcellina), who sustained injuries when hit by a car a month ago. Fortunately, she had a worthy replacement in mezzo Meghan Latham. A bit of luxury casting, to have soprano Mireille Asselin as Barbarina. She shone in her brief moments in the sun, singing a lovely arioso.
Even with the conventional cuts of the Marcellina and Basilio arias, Nozze runs a good three and a half hours, including a 20-minute intermission. In mediocre performances, this piece can seem draggy. Not here! Under the expert baton of Harry Bicket, who’s a fine Mozartian, there was not a dull moment. He led the COC forces in a totally idiomatic performance, eliciting gorgeous sounds from the orchestra. I found myself enjoying every minute. All in all, a scintillating start to the COC winter season.
Seven additional performances: Feb. 2, 4, 10, 12, 16, 18. Details here.
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