Maybe it’s because of the prevalence of male toxicity, hypocrisy and entitlement in the news lately, but the battle-of-the-sexes aspect of Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro” never seemed more apparent than in Seattle Opera’s opening-night performance last Saturday.
The usual big-issue takeaway from this comedy, as any Western Civ 101 textbook will tell you, is class conflict, as the title character and his fiancée Susanna, servants in the house of Count and Countess Almaviva, struggle to get on with their wedding while fending off the philandering Count’s advances and reconciling him with his neglected wife.
But to raise the sexual stakes in this 1786 farce required no italicizing, no heavy-handed directorial concept imposed on it. All stage director Peter Kazaras had to do was keep the comedy mechanism well oiled: the slapstick, the disguises, the entrances and exits of the final scene, in which Susanna and the Countess switch cloaks to catch the Count in the act. Then stay out of the way and let the vagaries of love bubble to the surface on their own.
The main shift of emphasis here, a subtle one, seems to be in the portrayal of the Countess. Compared to most productions of “Figaro,” in which she’s nearer to a tragic figure — a nobly suffering marble statue — this Countess, Marjukka Tepponen in the opening-night cast, is a more active participant in the comic plot, more eager than most Countesses to take the wheel and drive the scheme to get back at her cheating husband.
She and Susanna (Soraya Mafi) make a formidable united front — really taking focus from Figaro (Ryan McKinny), who becomes something closer to the Count’s ally than his foe, more the butt of the joke. Tepponen’s Countess also shares zesty chemistry with Norman Garrett’s Count; they’re less villain and victim than well-matched sparring partners, cousins to battling Shakespearean lovers, or even to opera’s ultimate can’t-live-with-’em, can’t-live-without-’em pairing: Marcello and Musetta in Puccini’s “La bohème.”
In Seattle Opera’s take, “Figaro” forms a grand gender-war trilogy with “Cosi fan tutte” and “Don Giovanni,” Mozart’s two other operatic partnerships with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, both of which Seattle Opera has staged quite recently: three views on the dueling give-and-take of romance, which always interested Mozart more than class politics. (Not that politics didn’t.) Even Benoît Dugardyn’s set confirms it: Posted at the top of the proscenium, as if carved into stone, is a lyric from Act II: “PERDONO NON MERTA CHI AGLI ALTRI NON DA,” or, roughly, “He deserves no forgiveness who cannot give it.” It’s a pointed moral for the comically clashing relationships of the story’s two main couples.
From the lithe, punchy overture through any number of delicious woodwind solos, the Seattle Symphony sounds excellent under conductor Alevtina Ioffe. Olga Syniakova, as amorous teenage boy Cherubino, provides one of the most convincing “trouser roles” — women playing young men, a frequent comic-opera convention — I’ve ever seen.
Among uniformly solid performances, the vocal highlight, recipient of Saturday’s warmest ovation, was “Deh vieni non tardar,” Susanna’s Act IV serenade; Mafi and Ioffe stretched the closing phrases seductively and poignantly, as if reluctant to let the moment go. Also demanding mention are Myung Hee Cho’s marvelous and witty costumes, a veritable pride rainbow of splashy color: orange, green, hot pink, sky blue and lilac.
This report is supported, in part, by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and the Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.