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REVIEW: More comedy than pain in ‘Marriage of Figaro’s’ battle of the sexes

Written by an Austrian (Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart), with an Italian libretto (by Lorenzo da Ponte) based on a French play (by Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais), “The Marriage of Figaro” is set in a Spanish palace outside Seville in the 18th century, where the principal activity appears to be the pursuit of liaisons, both wanted and unwanted, among the royals and their servants.

‘THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO’

Somewhat recommended

When: Through Oct. 24

Where: Civic Opera House, 10 N. Wacker

Tickets: $39 – $329

Info: (312) 827-5600; http://www.lyricopera.org

Run time: 3 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission

The driving force, of course is universal in this opera that is essentially a battle of the sexes and a bedroom farce. The “revolutionary” politics of Beaumarchais’ work is largely expunged, aside from a brief mention that the royals no longer have the right to demand sexual favors from their servants. The music is glorious, particularly as the story darkens in the work’s second half. But a little of this sort of farce and froth goes a very long way. And at Lyric Opera, where the 2015-2016 season opened Saturday with an elaborate new production directed by Barbara Gaines (founder and artistic director of the Chicago Shakespeare Theater), the comic frolicking grows tiresome, and the real pain of betrayal emerges only fitfully.

Luca Pisaroni is Count Almaviva and Christiane Karg is Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at Lyric Opera. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)
Luca Pisaroni is Count Almaviva and Christiane Karg is Susanna in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” at Lyric Opera. (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)

To be sure, Gaines has cast the opera expertly, and she gets things off to a rollicking start as two characters in heat chase each other down an aisle of the theater, but there is far too much “indicating” and not nearly enough subtlety here.

Gaines’ Figaro (Adam Plachetka, the Czech bass-baritone making a fine Lyric debut), is a big, warm-hearted fellow with just the right mix of mischief, sweetness and guile. And as his soon-to-be-wife, Susanna, Christiane Karg, a petite, high-spirited, silvery soprano from Germany, bristles with energy and self-possession. Of course it is not difficult to understand why the ever-philandering Count Almaviva (the tall, dark and handsome Italian bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni), wants Susanna for his mistress, despite the agony this causes his adoring, long-suffering, elegant wife, Countess Almaviva (Illinois-born soprano Amanda Majeski).

In the bedroom of Countess Almaviva (center, played by Amanda Majeski), with Figaro (Adam Plachetka, left) and Susanna (Christiane Karg, right), in the Lyric Opera production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)
In the bedroom of Countess Almaviva (center, played by Amanda Majeski), with Figaro (Adam Plachetka, left) and Susanna (Christiane Karg, right), in the Lyric Opera production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Photo: Andrew Cioffi)

Along the way there are countless complications, with foolishness, jealousy and every possible sort of deception and disguise coming into play. All this is reminiscent of Shakespeare’s comedies in which the servants are often brighter than the masters, and the crafty female characters shift roles to catch their unfaithful lovers in acts of betrayal, real or perceived. Here we also have Cherubino (Israeli mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel in the traditional “pants” role, who finesses some funny bits of boyish physicality), the adolescent crazed by a sudden infusion of testosterone, along with Figaro’s newly discovered parents (Brindley Sherratt and Katherine Goeldner), the royal gardener’s daughter, Barbarina (the lush-voioced Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi), and more.

The Countess’ pain is dealt with comically early on as she gorges sweets on the gargantuan bed she once shared with her husband. But some of the opera’s most moving moments (and most exquisite singing) come when she recalls the joys of her earlier days of passion with the Count, and then, in a duet with Susanna, she dictates a love letter suggesting an assignation between Susanna and the Count (“under the pines”). By the end, the two women, who have switched identities, come to terms with their men in different ways, and again the singing by all four is splendid.

Conductor Henrik Nanasi does a fine job of balancing orchestra and singers, and while the chorus, directed by Michael Black, has relatively little to do, it sounds superb. James Noone’s set, gently raked and lifted off the stage floor, is a strange if elaborate construction, with some perilous steps that must be negotiated by the singers throughout. But the third act’s gorgeous assemblage of chandeliers (lighting by Robert Wierzel) is a beauty. Susan Mickey’s color-coded costuming is annoying. The couplings (or uncouplings) in this story really need no further explanation.

Rachel Frenkel (left) plays Cherubino, with Adam Plachetka as Figaro in the Lyric Opera production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)
Rachel Frenkel (left) plays Cherubino, with Adam Plachetka as Figaro in the Lyric Opera production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Photo: Todd Rosenberg)