Monday, September 29, 2014

High life

Le Nozze di Figaro - Metropolitan Opera, 9/22/2014
Abdrazakov, Petersen, Majeski, Leonard, Mattei / Levine

After a less than memorable closing run two seasons ago for Jonathan Miller's production of Figaro (which served the house well long after the director banished himself in a snit about Bartoli's airing of alternate arias), the Met opened 2014-15 with another Englishman's production. Richard Eyre's attempt isn't much better or worse than his predecessor's. It will probably serve the house in much the same way through casts both better and worse than this one.

The physical production won't surprise anyone who's seen Eyre's other Met efforts: the rotating unit set recalls the first act of his Carmen, while the last act's tree/structure juxtaposition was already seen in his Werther. Probably there's too much repeating latticework as the set's top part, which suggests a bit too much the overly abstracted Spain of Hytner's Don Carlo. But it's decent enough. (And it sounds like the Lincoln Center renovation finally got around to de-squeaking the turntable.)

Eyre has, I suppose unsurprisingly, moved the figures forward to the first part of the last century, so that they're recognizably not from some legendary Spain or the French revolution, but from the familiar modern myths of Downton Abbey, Upstairs Downstairs, Gosford Park, etc. In itself this is no particular innovation, but it does allow for the show's one interesting juxtaposition: in one of the scenes in the staged overture, we see the well-pressed order of the morning servants' assembly interrupted as Barbarina rushes in after her tryst with the Count. Here for once we see not just the familiar social-emotional disorder of Mozart, Beaumarchais, and da Ponte's creation, but the fragile orderliness in which it was born. The desire enacted and reflected in the story disrupts the peace not only of each person and the pre-Revolutionary world as a whole, but also of the household, that intermediate-scale space in which most of life is lived... and it's nice to see a tableau showing that perspective before we delve into the familiar close intimacy of the opera itself.

The musical side, too, is more impressive in its ensemble bits. But that, I think, is less by design than the vagaries of casting. Neither Ildar Abdrakazov (previously impressive as Prince Igor, Don Giovanni, the Hoffmann villains, and Mephistopheles) nor Marlis Petersen (a notable Lulu and Ophelia) is particularly flattered by the particular demands of Figaro/Susanna, so that each was decent enough but a bit colorless. Isabel Leonard was better -- admirably precise and lively -- as Cherubino, but doesn't quite achieve the level of vocal (most recently, Joyce DiDonato) or physical (Kate Lindsey) characterization needed to steal the show in this part. The Bartolo and Marcellina -- John Del Carlo and Susanne Mentzer (who was the original Cherubino of the previous production) -- showed a shocking degree of age, sad to those of us who recall their many good Met evenings not too long past.

And so, as happens at times, it's not until the Count and Countess appear that the emotional temperature of the evening rises. Perhaps the Met, after that unforgettable Amfortas, finally realizes what it has in Peter Mattei? The Swedish baritone is unequivocally the star of not only the upcoming Don Giovanni revival (which, as I've said from his very first show here, he should get every single season) but of this new Figaro -- both vain and wounded, commanding and self-pitying, heartless, jealous, and loving... and sounding terrific throughout. His foil is debuting American soprano Amanda Majeski, moved to the first cast from the second after the cancellation of the frankly bizarre original-choice Countess, Marina Poplavskaya (yes, she and Mattei made an amazing conflagration together in Onegin, but...). Majeski's not as ideal a fit for Mozart as Mattei -- the voice and vibrato seem to demand a larger scale -- but she's never less than interesting, and is potentially a wondrous find for the house going forward. It's not quite as titanic, but Majeski's vibrato-borne sound recalls that of another Illinois soprano, who's now conquering San Francisco with her Norma: it's an instrument that should open out naturally in heavier parts, and the fact that Majeski has mastered it even to navigating the long delicate lines of Porgi amor bodes well for her future here. It wouldn't surprise me at all if she's the next American superstar... but forget that, I'd just like to hear her Eva this December.

Did I go through the entire review without mentioning James Levine? With any luck, Met audiences can go back to taking his natural, singer-friendly, eloquent pit work for granted.

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Absolutely no axe-grinding, please.