Far South of San Francisco, Los Angeles Stages Its Own “Le nozze di Figaro”

COUNTESS ALMAVIVA (Martina Serafin). Photo by Robert Millard.

Far South of San Francisco, Los Angeles Stages Its Own Wedding

Review by David Gregson: Los Angeles, September 27, 2010

As an orchestra conductor, the astounding multi-talented Plácido Domingo does not always win rave reviews from critics, but it was difficult to find anything amiss down in the pit during Los Angeles Opera’s second 2010-2011 season opener Sunday afternoon, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. The world premiere of Daniel Catán’s Il Postino set the ball rolling last Thursday, and a review of that opera will appear here later this week. I was unable to attend the first performance but intend to make the second this coming Wednesday.

In Domingo’s “Figaro,” the whole musical performance charged forward at an energetic pace, without the evident excessive deference to the singers one so often associates with this maestro. Tender moments also received their due, and yet the whole thing clocked in at a mere three hours and fifteen minutes (including a generous intermission), so the score surely has undergone a number of cuts. The final garden scene is always a good place to do some trimming — but I personally never worry about numbers being jettisoned from this brilliant but overexposed and often overlong masterpiece.

In fact, “Figaro” is undergoing double exposure at the moment, with separate and “rival” productions taking place in San Francisco — and the reader will find a review (by Janos Gereben) of that show right here at Opera West, probably directly beneath this one. Opera West notes that we have lots of opera here “out West,” and it is always a bit frustrating for peripatetic opera lovers to travel up and down the coast only to find the same offerings in the same season. Or over the time span of a single year. However, the general director of one our leading houses has told me that traveling opera goers are not an important factor at all when it comes to planning seasons.

Susanna, Count Almaviva, Cherubino, and Don Basilio. Photo by Robert Millard.

The LA Figaro is Canadian bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch, something of a specialist in contemporary opera roles. He made his LAO debt as Seth Brundel in Howard Shore’s The Fly and will appear next season at Santa Fe Opera in Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Last Savage. He has also appeared in Little Women, Dead Man Walking, and the The Golden Ticket. Because he is the very model of the contemporary young and physically fit “barihunk,” these roles fit him well. As for the classics — naturally Don Giovanni and Figaro come into the mix, and he lavishes the latter role with a secure and pleasing tone and expert musicianship. And like most other singers of his generation, he knows his way around a stage and is loaded with personality.

The object of Figaro’s affections, of course, is the irrepressibly charming and very clever Susanna, wonderfully sung and interpreted by German soprano Marlis Petersen — and without checking the program notes carefully (and speaking with friends in the lobby), I would never have recognized this Susanna as the same singer I heard and saw at the Met recently (from the the third row, for heaven’s sake) as Lulu in Alban Berg’s opera of the same name. She was fabulous in that, and her Susanna simply shows her incredible range.

You cannot have a decent Le Nozze di Figaro without a damn good Count and Countess Almaviva or a terrific Cherubino, and this production (a revival, by the way, of the show designed by Tom Goodchild) has them all. Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, a veteran in the role of the Count, brings his part pathos and comedy in equal measure. The experience shows — although I do not think Skovhus has ever done two interpretations of this part that resemble one another in any way! That’s director’s theater for you. In Salzburg he was running around like a man terrified, sweat pouring off of him. He wore an immensely long curly wig and made his first entrance in a nightgown, occasionally flashing his manly chest seductively at Susanna. It’s a wonder these artists can keep one concept of the character cut off from the last one they played — oh, say, in Zurich or Berlin. I often think opera singers must be the greatest, most versatile actors in the world. The next Count that Skovhus plays will not be the same as this one. He’ll probably be a vampire. But under the stage direction of Ian Judge, Skovhus is allowed many dimensions of character, and his moving “Perdono, perdono” did not get a laugh. I suppose it helps the the supertitles seemed to go off at that moment!

“Perdono, perdono” brings us to the Countess, regal of bearing and authoritative in voice — wonderful Viennese soprano Martina Serafin. Serafin brought beauty and powerful tone to both her big arias and the essential final scene, one which truly touched the heart while backed by a fine ensemble and Domingo’s Los Angeles Opera orchestra.

Figaro, Antonio, Cherubino, Susanna and the Countess Almaviva. Photo by Robert Millard.

The flawless Cherubino was Renata Pokupić, touching and amusing throughout — although I do wish she had not been instructed to howl during the wonderful martial coda to Figaro’s “No più andrai”! Mezzo-soprano Ronnita Nicole Miller, a large woman with a perfectly fabulous voice, made an unusually hilarious Marcellina, and she paired well with her loving partner, Italian bass Alessandro Guerzoni as Doctor Bartolo, Figaro’s madre and padre, don’t you know. Not to forget Don Basilio, performed well by British tenor Christopher Gillett on this occasion (or so I am led to believe by a tiny slip of paper that fell to the floor out of my program). The production also boasted an unusually appealing Barbarina in the form of soprano Valentina Fleer. Quality control continued with bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos as Antonio, and tenor Daniel Montenegro as Don Curzio.

I greatly enjoyed the simple but elegantly staged wedding dances that also managed to be amusing, so it’s a shame choreographer Chad Everett Allen (working with the Sergio Trujillo original concepts) did not come out for a final bow.

Mark Doubleday’s lighting was excellent — in a tricky show BTW, especially when you have an entire night-time scene in a dark garden. Doubleday solved this with flashlights. Yes, this Figaro is sort of in period, sort of not — so we get flashlights and telephones and a sense that the 18th century is really the 21st. Or more 20th, really, from the lack of cellphones and iPhone apps for flashlights!

The sets are rather stark, really, and make effective use of bright, bold reds, greens, blacks and gold. They have little charm, however, and seem to invite a more seriously political “Nozze” than Mr. Judge gives us. Thank you, Mr, Judge. I think the audience enjoyed seeing a director NOT upstaging the composer for a change!

Photo by Robert Millard.

FIGARO: Daniel Okulitch
SUSANNA: (Sept. 26 – Oct. 3) Marlis Petersen*
SUSANNA: (Oct. 6 – 17) Rebekah Camm
CHERUBINO: Renata Pokupic*
MARCELLINA: (Sept. 26 – Oct. 3) Ronnita Nicole Miller
MARCELLINA (Oct. 6 – 17) Tracy Cox*Can
DOCTOR BARTOLO: Alessandro Guerzoni*
DON BASILIO: Christopher Gillett
ANTONIO: Philip Cokorinos

CONDUCTOR: Plácido Domingo
CONDUCTOR: (Oct. 14, 17) Israel Gursky
CHOREOGRAPHER: Sergio Trujillo

Sunday September 26, 2010 2:00 p.m.
Thursday September 30, 2010 7:30 p.m.
Sunday October 3, 2010 2:00 p.m.
Wednesday October 6, 2010 7:30 p.m.
Sunday October 10, 2010 2:00 p.m.
Thursday October 14, 2010 7:30 p.m.
Sunday October 17, 2010 2:00 p.m.

Leave a Comment