“The Marriage of Figaro” in Santa Fe (2008)

What to the wondering eyes of SFO patrons should appear last night but a stage floor full of brightly colored fake flowers – and through the open-air stage at the back, a glorious after-the-rain sunset which turned the distant mountains into a sharp-edged silhouette.

Lovely — but what about all those hundreds of flowers? Doesn’t Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro begin with our macho valet/hairdresser hero measuring a room for his bridal bed? The flowers seemed a foreboding of dreadful Amero-Eurotrash to follow.

During the overture, led briskly and authoritatively by an old-hand at this opera, Kenneth Montgomery, several bewigged 18th-century footmen plucked about half of the floral display and carried in off in their arms.

OK – let’s examine the symbolism here, if any. Flowers. Virginity. Flowers plucked away from virgin maidens. Flowers as essential elements of a wedding ceremony. Flowers in gardens where people can tryst. Flowers replaced (something that actually happens in Act Four in this production).

Because the opera revolves around Count Almaviva’s Spanish feudal estate over which he presides with iron authority, and because he has the power to renounce an old law that permits him to sleep with any virgin maiden before her wedding, I suppose we’ll accept all of scenic designer Paul Brown’s symbolic overkill without complaint. Besides, elsewhere his ideas are beautiful to look at and quite effective. The stage-long stretch of blond wooden panels in Act One is a little dull, but the Countess’s bedroom of Act Two is handsome if largely conventional, and the Count’s plastic-crystal hallway of Act Three is quite strikingly effective. Of course, the final garden scene rarely comes off really well – and in this show it was strictly back to the flowers. The period costumes are smashing (especially the Count’s suit in Act Three), and the stage direction sensible and – glory be! –non-obfuscating. Too often these days opera-goers cannot figure out the story.

If I could with conscience get away with reviewing only one member of this Figaro cast, it would be the commanding, magnificent Polish baritone Mariusz Kweicien whose presence in anything is a thrill. His Count is among the most credibly human I have witnessed, and in his (possibly bogus) final bid for his wife’s forgiveness, his awesome sincerity staved off the inevitable laughs just seconds after he fell to his knees.

0 Tall, handsome Venezuelan bass-baritone was the eponymous hero of the title, bringing off all his arias with an imposing solidity, even if his characterization was a tad Little Abner-ish. His adored Susanna was English soprano Elizabeth Watts who seemed determined to be a little rough and country-bump instead of merely witty and blithely charming – but whatever one might have found wanting in her characterization was utterly redeemed by her famous last-act aria in the garden. Just gorgeous!

American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard was a winning and credibly boyish Cherubino, and she brought the final phrase of her first-act aria to an unprecedented and memorable meditative crawl. American soprano Susanna Phillips was one of the more beautiful looking Countess Almaviva’s I’ve seen lately. Gifted with a beautiful voice and fine musicality, she had many excellent moments including the two big arias and the final scene of forgiveness. One also must cite for praise American mezzo-soprano Michaela Martens, one of the better Marcellina’s around, while as her sidekick hubby-to-be, Dr. Bartolo, one must regret the passing of Welsh baritone Gwynne Howell’s sense of pitch. His days of considerable glory appear well past him.

This Figaro came as a pleasant surprise – especially after the sight of all those flowers. For critics it’s always a bit of a trial because of overexposure – and yet it’s a masterpiece to the core. I suppose to get tired of it would be to get tired of one of the greatest masterpieces ever written. “To get tired of life,” as the saying goes.

Mariusz Kwiecien dominating the stage as Count Almaviva in SFO's

Figaro – Luca Pisaroni
Susanna – Janice Watson
Countess Almaviva – Susanna Phillips
Count Almaviva – Mariusz Kwiecien
Cherubino – Isabel Leonard
Don Basilio – Aaron Pegram
Dr. Bartolo – Gwynne Howell
Marcellina – Michaela Martens

Conductor – Kenneth Montgomery (all except August 5)
Conductor – Robert Tweten (August 5)
Director – Jonathan Kent
Scenic Designer – Paul Brown
Costume Designer – Paul Brown
Lighting Designer – Duane Schuler
Choreographer – Peggy Hickey

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