San Diego Opera’s “Le nozze di Figaro” in May, 1998

By David Gregson

The Marriage of Figaro was the fifth and final fully staged production of the San Diego Opera’s 1997-98 season. It began its five-performance run Saturday, May 9, in Civic Theatre.

NOTE: This is my second attempt at recreating an Opera West archive that has been extensively destroyed by changes of server and other mysterious problems. The original photos seem to have dematerialized.

The sublime abounds in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, with the celebrated passage that begins with the Count’s “Perdono, perdono” (praised so highly by the composer Salieri in the popular movie and stage play, Amadeus) being only one of  innumerable moments in which there is a flawless fusion of meaning and music.

One heavenly passage rarely cited by commentators is that little duo for Susanna and Figaro that occurs shortly before the “Perdono” passage: “Pace, pace, mio dolce tesoro,” sung tenderly by the young wedding couple as they kiss and make up. But everywhere Mozart lavishes the Lorenzo da Ponte libretto with phrases of melting beauty. The relatively minor character, Barbarina, cannot find her pin — so Mozart gives us the achingly sad tune, “L’ho perduta,” that opens Act IV. The inspired humanity of the score is so profound that it spills over into totally unexpected areas. In a musically soaring Act Two ensemble, the characters are saying hardly anything of any importance whatsoever.

With its inexhaustible store of melody, Figaro continues to pay dividends during a lifetime of opera going. Unfortunately, the opera suffers somewhat from overexposure — at least for those of us who go to every opera that comes along in any town we can get to. How many times can we laugh at the too-familiar farcical stage antics? Cherubino in the chair, in the dress, in the closet, out the window. The Count checking all the doors, the women telling their stories and cooking up plots? Figaro limping around pretending he has injured his ankle. Figaro’s discovery that Marcellina and Bartolo are his “madre” and “padre”. The mistaken identity crises in the garden?

So one simply takes a deep breath, pretends the whole thing is utterly fresh, and then listens anew to the sublime music.

Saturday night’s  audience in San Diego’s Civic Theatre certainly seemed to be loving it.

The vital statistics:

Susanna: Ute Selbig**
Figaro: Andrew Wentzel
The Countess: Emily Magee*
The Count: Rodney Gilfry
Cherubino: Margaret Lattimore
Bartolo: François Loup
Marcellina: Judith Christin
Barbarina: Catherine Ireland
Antonio: Scott Sikon
Don Basilio: Francis Egerton
Don Curzio: Francis Egerton

Conductor: Edoardo Müller
Director: Lesley Koenig
Sets and Costumes: Zack Brown

*San Diego Opera debut
**United States opera debut

This Figaro would rate very high on one of those Olympic competition scales. It is surely possible to hear better individual singers in recordings or on the stage, but it’s almost impossible to encounter them all together in the same production. What one really wishes for is gifted, musical singers, who (ideally) look their parts and who have a flair for acting and musical ensemble. The current San Diego crop of artists meets virtually all these criteria.

Selbig was a very “classy” Susanna, charming but less cloyingly eager-to-please than some: Her last act “Deh vieni” an evening highlight. Displaying excellent intonation, Wentzel was an altogether superior Figaro, pulling off “Se vuol ballare” with admirable restraint (instead of the currently fashionable through-the-teeth venom), and making the most of of “Non piu andrai” and the politically incorrect “Arite un po’ quegli occhi”  that embarrassingly warns men in the audience to watch out for deceitful women seated nearby.

Gilfrey has his Count Almaviva down to a science these days, getting every bit of juice out the role, and using his attractive light baritone voice to tremendous advantage. He was not overshadowed by Wentzel’s more resonant bass.

An elegant figure on the stage, especially in her blue silk and white powder wig in Act Three, Magee sang a “Porgi amor” that was troubling with regard to phrasing and intonation, but her later “Dove sono” was quite fine. Lattimore, too obviously feminine in form to delude us into believing she’s a boy, showed musical command and thorough sense of character in “Voi che sapete” and elsewhere. Her characterization may have been a tad more manic than the run-of-the-Cherubinos, but it was generally excellent. Loup, as usual, was superb, savvy in every department; and Christin sang solidly while having a comic field-day with her part. The orchestra was crisply and efficiently led by Eduardo Mueller.

This is the Zach Brown production I have seen before, most recently in San Francisco. Thought dreary by many (but not me), it consists of four complete sets, all of them three-dimensional representations of period Spanish interiors and interiors. There is more than a little suggestion of the paintings of Goya. The Act III set is especially attractive with its literal representation of a Spanish courtyard, complete with arcades and a filigreed iron gate through which the light of the setting sun comes, bathing everything in the sort of light one see in canvases of the “Old Masters.”

I spotted our city’s leading critic-at-large uttering a “brava” for the stage director. I’ve never seen him do anything like that before — but Lesley Koenig certainly deserved it. She eliminated the usual corny slapstick, refused to milk laughs, and aimed for sensible stage
movements that illuminated character and action. She also grouped figures so that they made musical sense. (Faint!)  Lesley Koenig. As Martin Bernheimer used to say of promising artists (and perhaps still does), “Remember that name.”

Additional performances of the opera will be Tuesday, May 12, 1998 at 7 p.m; Friday, May 15, 1998 at 8 p.m ; Sunday, May 17, 1998 at 2 p.m.; and Wednesday, May 20, 1998 at 7 p.m.

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