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The Greensboro Opera Company's production of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro), seen on Sunday, November 6, 2005, was a smashing success despite the imperfect acoustics of War Memorial Auditorium. I sat dead center in the 10th row on the main floor for the first half of the performance and was disturbed by the loudness of the orchestra; I had difficulty understanding the singers and was troubled by the directionality of the sound, with voices fading in and out intermittently. The problems were immediately improved by moving upstairs to the lower balcony, where it became apparent that the orchestra was not too loud and that the singers' diction was excellent. The hall is cavernous and very wide for its depth – a far cry from the 220-person Kleiner Redoutensaal (Vienna) where I saw my first Nozze di Figaro, with neither lighting nor sets.
The Greensboro Opera's sets, on loan from the Philadelphia Opera, were gorgeous. A baroque inlaid wooden parquet floor remained in place during all four acts (yes, even the outdoor scene!) and provided continuity and a focal point. Tall columns made the marriage scene imposing and grand. The costumes were elegant and the lighting very effective.
All the roles were well cast, especially the clever Figaro (Bert Johnson), his boss, the vexed and perplexed Count Almaviva (Jonathan Hays), and the bold and bawdy Cherubino (Carolyn Kahl, in a "pants" role), out to sow his wild oats wherever he could. Cherubino's famous aria, "Voi che sapete," was delightful. Figaro and the Count both had beautiful rich baritone voices, Figaro's a bit more powerful and varied, and the Count's more suave, befitting both his position and the purpose of seducing Susanna.
Suzan Hanson (Countess Almaviva) was superb both in appearance and in her show-stopping third act aria, "Dove sono." (What a pity the reprise of the main tune, beautifully sung sotto voce, went flat.) Susan Holsonback, as the betrothed and much courted (by the Count, by Cherubino and ultimately by Figaro) Susanna, was excellent in her numerous arias and duets after I moved to the balcony; she exhibited a warm and enchanting voice. The sexy Barbarina (Elizabeth Racheva), who enchants and eventually captures Cherubino, has a delicious voice not usually found in this small role. I look forward to hearing her in other roles, as do I Carolyn Kahl (Cherubino).
Marcellina (Victoria Hart), Figaro's suitor, and her employer, Dr. Bartolo (David Ward) both have powerful voices and impressive stage presence. They were effectively joined in the more comic parts of the opera by David Ronis, both a music master and later a judge, and Robert Wells, the morose tippling gardener and father of the naughty Barbarina.
Valéry Ryvkin, the conductor of this production and Artistic Director of the Greensboro Opera Company, led a very stylistic performance with supple and elegant gestures, meant for the singers and orchestra, instead of the audience! He also improvised the witty accompaniments for the recitatives himself on a rather loud synthesized harpsichord. His musicians – a pared-down Greensboro Symphony – responded well and played this immortal music with charm and wit. Of note were the many virtuoso passages (starting with the well-known Overture) for bassoon, cleanly played by Carol Bernstorf. And among the most effective scenes was the finale of the second act, with its powerful sextet and comic quadrille and the slow string recitative that precedes "Dove sono."
It is hard to see this familiar opera with the eyes of Vienna or Prague of the late 1780s, but at that time, the idea that the hero of an opera would not be of the nobility was subversive. And Figaro, a servant, certainly pulled the wool over his employer's eyes often. His first act aria ("Se vuol ballare, Signor Contino") says: "If you want to dance, Mr. Countie, I'll play the guitar for you," a metaphor that summarizes the whole plot, because as the guitar was an instrument of the lower classes, not the nobility, the implication is that the nobility would have to come down to the level of the lower classes. Significantly, Figaro repeats a shorter version of this same aria in the second act. In Act III, the music of the nobility is a solemn march, the music of the people a sprightlier fandango-like triple meter. It's a pity that the unmentioned choreographer of the Greensboro performance had the peasants dancing to the noble's music instead of to the peasant's music! Of course, in the end, we discover that Figaro is Bartolo's and Marcellina's illegitimate son and therefore of the nobility, so the subversion is defused and those whose feathers Mozart may have ruffled are appeased.
A second theme of the opera is the constant attempt of the males to bed down the women, even to the point of the Count asking to assert his "droits de seigneur," the lord's right to sleep with the newly-wed before the groom. In our current climate of emancipation, women's liberation, and egalitarianism, it all seems as silly as the mixed metaphor, "What's sauce for the Goose is a horse of a different color!" But da Ponte, the librettist, and Beaumarchais, the author of the original Figaro trilogy, again subvert the expected with the brilliant strategies concocted by the Countess and Susanna, conferring the same "sauce to the gander."