"The Marriage of Figaro" gets stylish treatment from Washington National Opera

It seems almost radical, given the spread of Directorial Concept Disease throughout the opera world, to find a staging of Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" that plays it very straight. One of the many pleasures to be gained from Washington National Opera's production, directed by Harry Silverstein and designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle (originally for Houston Grand Opera), is the fun of seeing how a thoroughly traditional approach can still yield so much freshness and style. This is a "Marriage" well worth celebrating. 

I know it seems a little thing, but I, for one, was glad to see no stage business at all during the overture (too many directors treat opera overtures as shtick time). And once the curtain rose Monday night at the Kennedy Center Opera House, revealing a monochromatic, but somehow never dull, set that framed the action neatly and elegantly, it was apparent that this "Figaro" was in safe, sane hands.

The singers were well in the groove from the get-go, thoroughly inside their characters and admirably attentive to the subtleties of the score. I found myself caught up all over again in the familiar piece. Silverstein did not really add much, but rather simply put a nice new spin on all the comic bits already built into the opera, and he coaxed from the cast tight, sparkling ensemble work.

Although this wasn't necessarily a night of historic vocalism, the artists 

certainly fulfilled the technical demands of the music and put abundant animation into every phrase (several arias were enhanced by judicious embellishments).

Ildar Abdrazakov bounded into the title role with admirable assurance. His bass resonated warmly and evenly; he animated every phrase, making occasional, telling use of mezza voce along the way. Veronica Cangemi, as Susanna, did not generate a big sound, but used her distinctive soprano very colorfully.

Virginia Tola created an affecting Countess. Her tone, with its slightly metallic edge, penetrated easily; her long-breathed, eloquent phrasing, especially in "Dove sono," proved quite disarming. Teddy Tahu Rhodes, suggesting a dark-haired version of Fabio (anyone remember Fabio?), strutted and preened delectably as Almaviva. Although his baritone dried out a bit when pushed, he sang with admirable smoothness and expressive vibrancy.

Michele Losier made a winsome Cherubino, offering a mellow mezzo and exquisitely spun phrases to match her incisive acting.

The supporting roles were filled with solid actor-singers, notably Victoria Livengood as a highly spirited, irresistible Marcellina. She produced more sheer volume than all the rest put together and filled that sound with myriad colors (not all of them necessarily pretty, but always rich in communicative force). Robert Baker likewise hammed it up endearingly as Don Basilio. Vivid contributions from Valeriano Lanchas (Bartolo), Emily Albrink (Barbarina) and Jose Ortega (Don Curzio) rounded out the well-meshed troupe. The choristers made the most of their brief moments onstage.

The WNO orchestra started off unevenly -- the woodwinds sounded quite out of sorts during the overture -- but soon settled down and generated cohesive playing for Patrick Fournillier, whose conducting deftly combined momentum with sensitive breadth.

All in all, a most satisfying, refreshing, thoroughly classy encounter with a venerable opera.

(The principals I heard perform again April 29, May 2, 4 and 7. A second group of principals will be featured May 1 and 5. In addition, a performance of the opera by members of WNO's Domingo-Cafritz Young Artists program will be given for the 18-35 generation on May 6.)


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