Lyric Opera

Mozart seems to have failed every time he tried to write a purely serious opera. A straight comedy like The Abduction From the Seraglio comes off well enough, but works like Idomeneo are rather flat. Mozart’s greatest efforts all fall into a peculiar area where ideas that are meant to be taken in deadly earnest are contrasted with and even illustrated by actions that range from droll to slapstick. A mind used to later conventions can sometimes find this strange or even disconcerting. Few 19th- or 20th-century operatic works have this seriocomic nature, as they are generally either tragic or done for laughs (with the notable exception of works such as Der Rosenkavalier and Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg). This difference in style may be accounted for partly by the tendency of the romantic and postromantic world to take itself too seriously, and partly by the fact that during a time of court censors “dangerous” ideas could be delivered only with a laugh. Certainly the characters of Le nozze di Figaro (which is based on the play by Beaumarchais) were subversive, though the establishment of the time didn’t act forcefully against the performance of the work because, like the Soviet apparat, it had already lost faith in its own legitimacy.

From his earliest years Mozart was susceptible to outside musical influences, soaking them up like a sponge and incorporating them into his work. (Had he been capable of no more than this, he might have been just another idiot savant.) But the multifaceted aspect of his musical genius also seems to have extended to his worldview and kept him from relating to only the tragic side of a dramatic situation. Though like many geniuses, he could be somewhat slapdash. In his time opera was an ephemeral entertainment. A composer received a commission, wrote a work, and pocketed his fee. If the work was successful, it was pirated throughout Europe–but its ultimate destiny was to be forgotten as new works supplanted it.

The length of Le nozze di Figaro sometimes scares today’s short-attention-span audiences away, which is a great pity. The work contains some of Mozart’s best music, as well as librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s succinct translation of Beaumarchais’ ideas. True–if pragmatic–love conquers aristocratic privilege, and in a fashion that reconciles all in the end. And if you demand relevance, here you have the sexual harassment in the workplace experienced by the hardworking heroine, Susanna.

Recording technology has definitely had an effect on the modern opera audience, an effect that works to the disadvantage of live performance. Being familiar with the assembled talents of the world’s best musicians from recordings can really point up the weaknesses of a live show. Even a performance by a major company can look pallid compared to a great recording. But it would be difficult to imagine a cast that could do Le nozze di Figaro more justice than that of the current production at Lyric; one sees synergy like this only once every few years.

This production is not new–it played here in 1987–and even the cast is not entirely new. Samuel Ramey’s Figaro was always excellent dramatically, but now his superb tone matches his stage presence. Marie McLaughlin is a charming newcomer to this production, though she has been heard at Lyric before. Presumably we owe her appearance as Susanna to the estrangement of Maria Ewing, who sang the role last time, from director and ex-husband Peter Hall. Hall’s direction, in combination with the 18th-century sets of designer John Bury, still provides the right backdrop for this “comedy of manners” from a bygone age. Helping to keep alive the nonfarcical aspect of the opera is William Shimell as Count Almaviva. With a strong voice and a dignified bearing, Shimell kept Almaviva from slipping into a TV-sitcom role and becoming a hapless butt in the intrigues swirling around him. Felicity Lott reprised her role of the Countess Almaviva with a wistfulness that put one in mind of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. The name of Susanne Mentzer, who sings Cherubino, is not as well known as that of Frederica von Stade, who will sing the role in later performances. But though Mentzer is neither so angular nor so boyish, her voice did not give cause to repine.

Andrew Davis led the assembled forces with the same lively style he used in the 1987 production. The chorus turned in a professional performance, though this is not a big chorus opera. And the minor principal roles have been cast with care–there wasn’t a single disappointment. In fact, the entire cast would be a credit to a studio recording.

Lyric’s production shares another trait with a good recording–it is uncut. This makes for a long evening, especially when there’s only a single intermission. But while a recording is expected to be uncut, an every-note-is-sacred stance in a live performance is not always a virtue. The weakness of this choice shows through in the fourth act, which is little more than a parade of arias. These arias debilitate the dramatic impact of the act, and the best that can be said for most of them is that they are not Mozart’s finest writing. It is probable that the opera would be strengthened by the formerly customary deletion of the arias of Basilio and Marcellina. It is also probable that Ugo Benelli and Felicity Palmer, who sang these roles well, would not approve.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Tony Romano.