The first thing you see at the Academy of Music’s new co-production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s MARRIAGE OF FIGARO (with Lyric Opera of Kansas City, San Diego Opera, and Pam Beach Opera) is a large set with cameo likenesses of Count and Countess Almaviva on a family tree along a palatial garden wall. Leslie Travers’ set is not only striking visually, but the wall transforms and move throughout the production, revealing closets to hide in, windows to jump out of, and a portico from which the audience can see who is at the door while the characters debate whether or not to open it.
If you sit in the vertiginously raked amphitheater, you may panic when you find out your view is blocked by the elegant chandelier suspended from the decorative Academy ceiling – but the large light goes right back up where it belongs during the overture, as the onstage chandeliers are being lit by bewigged attendants.
David Devan, general director and president of Opera Philadelphia, came out to say that Cecelia Hall, who is singing Cherubino, had a cold but would still sing. This turned out to be a false alarm as Cherubino’s first aria and playful antics showed no signs of trouble. Her very pure and simple delivery of “Non so’ più” was understated and beautifully clear, soaring melodically without strain and portraying the panic of pubescent sexual discovery with delicate humor.
Maestro Corrado Rovaris, music director of Opera Philadelphia, has outdone himself in conducting this production. He conducts from the harpsichord, playing the recitatives with panache. He started the overture at a very fast clip, but acting principal bassoon Wade Coufal had no problem with the challenging bassoon opening.
The staging of the slapstick hilarity worked extremely well. Director Stephen Lawless and assistant director and choreographer interpreted the genius ideas of Lorenzo Da Ponte and Mozart by creating comic staging with characters sliding under beds, hiding under dresses, jumping out of windows and into flowerbeds seamlessly – even on opening night.
There were a few tepid attacks in the first few scenes, but the spirit of the opera quickly took shape. Maestro Rovaris’ experienced conducting assured that the music was perfectly timed for all the little pratfalls, one of which was a burst of sound as Susanna slapped Figaro. Was it Susanna herself, or someone backstage or someone in the orchestra? Who knows, but it was spot on and super loud so it really seemed as if Susanna had given her lover a severe blow to the jaw.
On top of these great antics in period costumes (Leslie Travers and his team must have really worked on those costumes because characters stripped and jumped and leapt out of windows without seeming to rip or muss anything), there was some fine singing. Susanna (Ying Fang) has a lovely voice, but I was not absolutely convinced until she sang “Deh vieni” with flutes, oboes and bassoons weaving in and out of the harmony so subtly they became part of the vocal line, exploiting Mozart’s great talent for opera orchestration.
The Countess Alamaviva (Layla Claire) has a powerful voice and is able to easily hit high A-flats, but I found her less consistent than the rest of the cast. Her best singing was in “Dove sono i bei momenti” and her duet with Susanna “Soave zeffiretto”.
Figaro (Brandon Cedel) is a gifted bass-baritone and his acting abilities are also superb, especially as he tries to send the skirt-chasing Cherubino (Cecelia Hall) on his way in “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso” and when he vows to hold the line on the Count’s pursuit of his fiancé in “Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino”.
The Signor Contino Alamaviva (John Chest) was able to transform himself from the lascivious and lazy pursuer of young maidens to a hateful revenge-seeking conniver on a dime as he discovers that Susanna is playing him at his own game.
The finale was superb – with every member of the cast in top form in the extravagant and farcical musical dénouement. The performance is slightly more than three hours long, but several small children and young people were enthusiastic as they tripped down the stairs at the end of the performance – a high compliment to our Opera Philadelphia.
[Academy of Music, 240 South Broad Street]. April 28-May 7, 2017; operaphila.org. #PHIgaro.