San Francisco Opera, Tuesday, Sept. 21
By Janos Gereben
San Francisco: Trust the work, give it your all. That age-old formula to present great opera – the *only* valid approach – worked miracles tonight as San Francisco Opera presented a vibrant, wonderful production of "The Marriage of Figaro," opening a nine-performance run.
When you deal with a two-century-old warhorse, the temptation is to place the action in outer space or costume the singers in feathers… anything, really, to make it "different."
Conductor Nicola Luisotti, director John Copley, and an exceptional young cast of singing actors in the War Memorial had a better idea: they offered a musically beautiful, dramatically alive and funny production, winning the hearts and ovation of even the most fatigued opera veterans. Without outer space, without feathers: "just" the greatness of the work.
The specter of history permeates "The Marriage of Figaro." Pierre Beaumarchais wrote the play in 1778, the year France recognized the U.S. and a decade before the French Revolution. Royal censors fought this savage satire of the aristocracy for six years before its premiere.
But then it took only two years for Mozart to introduce his version in Italian, "Le nozze di Figaro," which ever since 1786 has remained one of the most treasured and frequently performed operas in the world.
Besides more than two centuries of venerability, consider the 60-year-long operatic career of Copley, directing here "Nozze" for the third time.
So with all that history, patina, and occasionally excessive familiarity, what do you get from the San Francisco Opera?
Something fresh, invigorating, and mostly wonderful. From the overture on, Luisotti’s Mozart had precision and verve. Strings and woodwinds sang all night long, balanced well with Luisotti’s own fortepiano. The heavenly music of the Finale, after the investment of 3 1/2 hours by musicans and the audience, was just that: heavenly.
So old is the current production that there is no credit for the stage design: it’s been through umpteen variations and alterations in the five productions since its original introduction in 1982, by Zack Brown. Even the Goyaesque atmosphere of the original became "generic historical-bucolic," but it works just fine.
Copley, who received the San Francisco Opera Medal after the final curtain, was in his element. He had a hundred shticks, enhancing especially the comic aspects of the work, taking nothing away from from it. Copley helped to make little bits of action (showering the Count with flowers was hilarious), routine gestures interesting and meaningful. Above all his sense of humor served the work exceptionally well; after all, this is comedy that’s often performed without being genuinely funny.
Luca Pisaroni is a superbly athletic and attractive Figaro, a singing actor par excellence, not one to stand and deliver – although he certainly has the voice for it. Danielle de Niese was his believable Susanna, gorgeous in voice and appearance, funny and romantic in turn.
Merola veteran Lucas Meachem’s second homecoming (after his memorable Pierrot in the 2008 "Die Tote Stadt") in the role of Count Almaviva was a tower of (vocal) strength while his ongoing fiascos and humiliation were both funny and dramatically believable.
Ellie Dehn’s Countess kept soaring, after an apparently nervous start. There is voice, artistry, and stage presence there. Michele Losier’s somewhat overactive and constantly beaten up Cherubino (Copley overreaching here, I think) was a vocal and acting delight.
San Francisco veterans John Del Carlo (Dr. Bartolo), Catherine Cook (Marcellina), Bojan Knezevic (Antonio) contributed much. Adler Fellow Sara Gartland provided one of the most notable Barbarinas in my excessively long memory.
Above and beyond all the individual excellence, it was an ensemble performance to remember and treasure. Thank you for a "Le Nozze" that feels all new and most enjoyable.