All Time Coloratura

Opera Atelier’s Marriage of Figaro – Review

Posted in Opera Atelier by cToronto on April 29, 2010

Photo: Bruce Zinger / Artists: Peggy Kriha Dye & Wallis Giunta. Courtesy of Opera Atelier.

I care a lot about The Marriage of Figaro. I used to get into very heated arguments with the other classical music person in my high school, who was obsessed with Prokofiev. Mozart is bland and predictable, he said, with too narrow an emotional range. This point of view baffled and vexed me, and when I marshaled my counter-arguments in defense of Mozart’s beauty, complexity, and unparallelled understanding of drama, Figaro was never far from my mind.

In my head there is an ideal Figaro performance, composed of all the best parts of all the various incarnations I’ve heard and seen, along with the (admittedly fuzzy) images in my head. I was looking forward to this production very much, and was worried that I’d be disappointed by even minor differences from my own personal Ideal Figaro. After seeing it, it’s safe to say that this production comes closer to my ideal than any other I’ve seen, by quite a wide margin – but of course that makes the shortfalls that much more maddening.

A reasonable person can evaluate a Figaro production by roughly three criteria: First, is it funny? Second, is it sexy? Third and most important, is it beautiful?

First, humour. I wasn’t entirely sold on the English translation, but there’s absolutely no question that using it makes the opera funnier. There’s nothing separating the audience from the jokes, the timing is never wrong, and hearing an actor deliver a joke is always much better than reading it on a surtitle. Usually Figaro’s comic scenes get an obligatory, anemic chuckle from an audience that’s expecting all the surprises; this time, the comic possibilities were exploited to the fullest and the evening was full of genuine laughs.

Another element where Opera Atelier consistently stands head and shoulders above other opera companies is in stage movement. Too often, a lumpen park-and-bark acting style makes even the freshest, most voluptuous operas seem flat and dowdy on stage. Here, every turn of the head and swing of the arm appeared to have been precisely choreographed to serve the drama. Back in January, a fascinating New York Times piece on dance in opera bemoaned how infrequently stage movement aligns with the music in operatic performance, explaining that “much of the best choreography helps us to hear the music better”. The stage movement in this production was deliciously responsive to the music, and aided the comedy considerably.

Second, sex. Truthfully, I look for this in just about every opera – Tosca, Don Giovanni, and Rosenkavailer are always a little disappointing without a generous amount of sexual tension. Opera Atelier’s promotional poster for Figaro featured a mostly-undressed, beautiful man lying supine on a bed. As expected, no problems here.

It’s in the third requirement – beauty – where I hit against those maddening slight shortcomings. My most serious complaint was with the tempi, which were consistently on the very brisk side, and sometimes felt overwhelming when combined with the frenetic action. Porgi, Amor particularly suffered from being hurried along, making the Countess seem at times more like a Real Housewife than a great lady in pain. In Acts III and IV, where the plot twists pile up quickly and relentlessly, I was longing for the moment of repose that Canzonetta sull’aria would have provided had it been given more room to breathe. Though the singing was consistently excellent – I particularly enjoyed Carla Huhtanen as Susanna and Wallis Giunta as Cherubino – the ensembles sometimes sounded a bit muddy.

I like my Countesses a little sadder and nobler than in this incarnation. I also wish that pathos had been chosen over comedy a bit more often – Figaro gives lots of opportunities to choose one or the other, and the ideal production maintains a balance of the two. However, seeing certain lines played for laughs, when I was accustomed to thinking of them as serious, expands my understanding of the opera rather than interfering with it.

These are, of course, minor complaints. This Figaro is full of interesting details and absolutely bursting with intelligence, wit, style, and vivid musicality. Even though the Figaro in my head would have lingered longer over the pauses, I suspect it will be a long time before I see anything that comes closer.

Alternative Opinions:

Eye Weekly: “OA’s new production will likely please any newcomer to this opera. Others, however, may wish Pynkoski had let the singers focus more on Mozart’s wit than on the clichés of farce.”

Toronto Star: “From the orchestra, to the singing, the staging and the costumes, here is a piece of musical theatre where nothing has been left to chance.”

The Globe and Mail: “This wonderful merging of text and music rests squarely with the talents of director Marshall Pynkoski and conductor David Fallis. The always meticulous Pynkoski has ensured that the opera is directed to within an inch of its life.”

NOW: “Opera Atelier’s not known for its subtle takes on baroque opera, but even by its standards, this new production of The Marriage Of Figaro is over-the-top broad. The only thing that’s missing is a whoopee cushion.”

Canoe – JAM!: “The Marriage of Figaro is not exactly a marriage made in heaven. But a Marriage of Figaro made by Opera Atelier can come pretty close — especially if your idea of heaven is fairly dripping with beautiful music, lavish sets and gorgeous costumes.”

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