Seattle Opera presents one of Mozart's crowning achievements, "The Marriage of Figaro," May 2-16 at Seattle's McCaw Hall. Peter Kazaras directs.
Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” is two quite distinct kinds of miracle at once.
Here, on a superficial view, is the epitome of the artificial 18th-century opera buffa (comic opera) plot, replete with intrigues suspected and real, complete with young-man role for female singer, and culminating in a nighttime garden scene that outdoes all rivals with its melee of mistaken meanings and identities and selectively overheard asides. Yet it was this same quick-fire imbroglio of misunderstandings that led Bernard Shaw, invoking the spirit of Shakespeare himself, to celebrate Mozart as “the most subtle and profound of all musical dramatists.”
The caldron of forces that justifies such an evaluation seethes on two levels — political and personal. Mozart’s opera was composed to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte based in turn on Beaumarchais’s play “La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro,” first publicly produced in Paris only two years earlier. A thoroughly topical piece, it was also, for the 1780s, a politically revolutionary one: The aristocrat is the villain, and he is bested by a pair of servants who surpass him as much in real nobility as in intelligence and self-control.
Peter Kazaras, who directs the Seattle Opera production that opens Saturday, says there are three kinds of “Figaro” production: intimate ones, grander ones with a great deal of information to be seen in the staging, and large-scale ones in a barer, colder vein.
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“I wanted this one to be really intimate,” he told me between rehearsals the other day, “and that will work well in McCaw Hall, because the acoustics are excellent, and we can come right down to the footlights, as close as possible to the audience.
“By the way, you need not worry about a change of period or anything like that in what you’ll see on the stage. In this production, everything looks like what it is.”
Naively, perhaps, I asked Kazaras (who also staged the work with the company’s Young Artists program in 2005) what the public should expect to take from experiencing his version of “Figaro.” His answer was undogmatic to the point of dogmatism: “It’s not my job to tell people what to get from the piece. Every individual takes what he or she finds personally illuminating. My job is to find a way to tell the story, and to give the audience a good time (which was Mozart’s aim, too); the magic happens when you switch on to the story.
“That story is an incredible piece of theatrical clockwork — nothing happens until something else has happened, and it’s like that all the way through.” (It may not be entirely coincidental that Beaumarchais began his working life as a clockmaker.) “But I will say this,” Kazaras added: “The opportunity to experience this work, with nearly 3,000 people all together in the theater, really amounts to a kind of communion.”
That may sound like a portentous word for the effect of a work that Seattle Opera’s publicity describes as “charming, lighthearted and endlessly enjoyable.” It is indeed all of those things. Yet such a summary leaves out of account not only the opera’s politically seditious aspect, but its profound seriousness as a human document.
All scenic shenanigans aside, Figaro and his bride, Susanna, are unmistakably real people, deeply in love with each other. You can hear that in Figaro’s lament, “O Susanna! Susanna,” in Act IV. It is a harrowing cry put forth all alone in the night, when the true lover thinks he has been played false. Such a moment is the surest proof that the apparent artificiality of this supreme human comedy is merely apparent. (In the production’s first cast the Figaro is Oren Gradus and the Susanna Christine Brandes; their replacements in the second cast are Nicolas Cavallier and Elizabeth Caballero — who are presumably unrelated.)
Only the profound musical dramatist of Shaw’s encomium could in the space of a few minutes have moved without anticlimax from this to the brilliant festivities of the opera’s conclusion. And the musical setting of the scene just before that sparkling ending, when the chastened Count Almaviva begs his wife’s forgiveness and she grants it, has justly been described as the greatest sacred music Mozart ever wrote.
Any sensitive listener, after hearing that, is bound to leave the theater entertained, indeed, but also intensely moved.
Bernard Jacobson: firstname.lastname@example.org