The Marriage of Figaro

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Based on Beaumarchais' La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro

Lyric Opera of Chicago

Original Production, Sir Peter Hall
Conductor, Sir Andrew Davis
Stage Director, Herbert Kellner

A review by M. D. Ball of the performance on Mar. 20, 2010

It's difficult to see this comedy as the story that some scholars say propelled Louis XVI to the guillotine. And while their claim may be an exaggeration, The Marriage of Figaro does operate at two levels, as do the better Warner Brothers cartoons of the 1950s and 1960s. It's good for an easy chuckle, if that's all one's in the mood for after a long week, but it also functions as a smart allegory of the sometimes-cruel social order that existed at the time Beaumarchais was writing and Mozart was composing. The humor can mask this opera's gravitas.

Marriage takes place 20 years after The Barber of Seville, in which Count Almaviva is madly in love with Rosina, whom he pursues through the agency of his servant, Figaro. But since then, the Count, who began as a youthful romantic tenor in Barber, has degenerated into a malicious philandering baritone who's bored with his wife. These days the Count desires Susannah, his wife's pert little maid, but she's affianced to Figaro, his valet. What follows from this foundation is a series of machinations by the Count, Figaro, Susannah, and the Countess (and, to a lesser degree, one or two others), each trying to achieve his or her own objectives. Through it all, we see servants outwitting their masters and commoners either working alongside their betters, or confronting them. Social equality becomes a possibility, real rather than imagined, and in the end, all the elaborate trickery and scheming that has rolled on throughout this "day of madness" finally culminate in the restoration of the Count's love for his wife and in a general expression of joy for a more just society.

The finest voice in the cast belonged to a singer whose time on stage, to my musical frustration, was too little. In the role of Countess Almaviva (Rosina), Nicole Cabell sang gracefully and confidently, her tone smooth and round like a polished stone. Her voice was frictionless and solid, with a humble luxuriousness, making it impossible to ignore the tonal similarities between her and Montserrat Caballé, whose sound was also beautifully dense. Moreover, Cabell's interpretation of "Dove sono i bei momenti di dolcezza e di piacer?" ("Where are those happy moments of sweetness and pleasure?") showed us that her skill isn't all technical. Her Rosina was seasoned by the years since the Count had won her heart in The Barber of Seville; she now has the wisdom of age, but, to her credit, she's no less wily.

Early in the opera, Mozart uses the music to establish distinction between the social classes, a distinction that gradually dissolves as the opera progresses. The Countess' aria at the beginning of Act II, "Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro" ("Love, give me some remedy"), is soulful, refined, and graceful, reflecting the dignity that characterized women of her social status. Cabell delivered this metaphor gently but firmly, singing with elegance, poignancy, and bearing.

As Susannah, Danielle de Niese sang her role energetically and with a grip on her character's personality, attitudes, and social station, especially vis-á-vis her mistress. One of the best moments in this production coincided with one of the most subtle symbols Mozart uses to imply nascent equality between maid and mistress, and, by extension, plebeian and patrician. In Act III, Susannah and the Countess sing a duet ("Sull'aria") that places them on equal emotional footing by giving each woman the same amount of music as the other. Understanding Mozart's purpose here, de Niese and Cabell blended sweetly, and conspiratorially, as they sang in accord about their mutual scheme against the Count, that "certo, certo, il capirà" ("of course, of course, he'll understand").

Joyce DiDonato, who sang Cherubino, has a voice markedly different from Cabell's or de Niese's. DiDonato's sound, especially in the upper register, was dry and breathy, and her vibrato was unstable. But her acting ability somewhat offset what she lacked in vocal quality. She embraced the adolescent spirit of her role, and nowhere better than in "Voi che sapete che cosa è amor", in which she was a convincing confused and awkward teenage boy pleading with two older women to explain his "affetto pien di desir" ("affection full of desire").

In the titular role, Kyle Ketelsen sang respectably, but on the whole he was less interesting than were his colleagues in their roles. Nevertheless, Ketelsen played up Figaro's early aria "Non più andrai" ("You won't go anymore"), which, like the Countess' "Porgi, amor", fixed his social class. His aria is a march in which the orchestra plays the very notes he sings, paralleling the social restrictions in which a man of Figaro's low birth had to function. Moreover, Ketelsen did give us a humorous mockery of the minuet in his aria "Se vuol ballare" ("If you want to dance"), in which the servant Figaro expresses his intention to thwart the master, Count Almaviva.

And as Count Almaviva, the baritone Mariusz Kwiecien fashioned a pompous, bombastic autocrat who saw skirts and chased them, a man whose actions were rooted in a sense of superiority and entitlement. Kwiecien's voice was powerful and penetrating, with a silvery resonance that went even further than did his acting to define the Count's sleaziness. Even so, Kwiecien succeeded in making the Count's more tender moments, especially his redemption at the end, quite believable.