Yesterday afternoon at the War Memorial Opera House, I attended the second performance by the San Francisco Opera of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s K. 492 comic opera The Marriage of Figaro. As was previously announced, this production marks the beginning of a three-opera cycle, which will unfold over the course of three seasons. The entire cycle encompasses Mozart’s partnership with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, which resulted in not only K. 492 but also the K. 527 Don Giovanni and the K. 588 Così fan tutte (thus do all women). The project was conceived by director Michael Cavanagh, setting all three operas in a common setting, which Cavanagh calls “the Great American House of Mozart and Da Ponte.”
This idea serves K. 492 particularly well. The entire scenario, based on a five-act comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais with the same title, takes place over the course of a single day in the estate house of Count Almaviva in Spain near the city of Seville. Cavanagh shifted time and place to the early years of the newly-constituted United States of America in a venue suggesting the architectural skills of that Great American Polymath Thomas Jefferson. Indeed, there are more than a few suggestions of Jefferson’s presence in Erhard Rom’s set design. Thus, while there are a few passing references to Seville, they could, for all intents and purposes, be taken for a small town in Virginia.
It is important to remember that Beaumarchais was a bête noire to the Holy Roman Empire. The play was written in 1778 and many saw it as provocation for a public uprising in France. (Guess what happened?) There were any number of comedies about servants outwitting their masters; but Beaumarchais made Figaro a spokesman for the “rights of man” that led to his play being banned in Vienna. Nevertheless, Da Ponte managed to provide Mozart with a libretto that satisfied the Censor of the Imperial Court.
In Cavanagh’s setting the distinction between nobility and the common folk translates relatively smoothly into the opposition of the haves and the have-nots. Wealth makes Almaviva a figure of power. If he has grown tired of his wife (a far cry from the spunky Rosina we know from The Barber of Seville) and shift his attention to one of the household staff (Susanna), then her efforts to thwart Almaviva (with assistance from her betrothed Figaro) suggests a looming “Me Too” incident in which the woman firmly gets the upper hand.
Nevertheless, Cavanagh’s is not a “politicized” reading of Da Ponte’s text. After all, in the final scene, Almaviva is caught in his attempted abuse and begs forgiveness of his wife. Being the better person of the couple, she grants it to him, leading to a final chorus that reflects on the day of folly brought to content and happiness by the power of love. All of this is delivered to the audience by Mozart’s music at its most ravishing, almost as if music itself has the power to summon the better angels of human nature.
Susanna (Jeanine De Bique), Figaro (Michael Sumuel), and the Countess (Nicole Heaston) plan to thwart Almaviva’s designs on Susanna (photograph by Cory Weaver, courtesy of the San Francisco Opera)
Indeed, what makes K. 492 such a significant opera is the consistent abundance of music that cuts to the core of human nature. We encounter it in the opening measures of the exchange between Figaro (bass-baritone Michael Sumuel) and Susanna (soprano Jeanine De Bique). On the other hand baritone Levent Molnár had the courage to play Almaviva as a self-indulgent scoundrel, who seems to have totally forgotten his passion for the young Rosina, now his Countess (soprano Nicole Heaston).
At the same time, it is clear from the music that no character is secondary; and Cavanagh reinforces Mozart’s commitment. The moment at which Figaro discovers that Bartolo (bass James Creswell) and Marcellina (mezzo Catherine Cook) are his parents was as cloying in its music as it was in its stagecraft, punctuated hilariously by Susanna’s confusion over the turn of events. On the other hand, Susanna was anything but confused during her “letter” duet with the Countess, a show-stopping reminder of just how heavenly Mozart could make too female voices sound. Even the almost-insignificant notary Curzio (tenor Brenton Ryan) had his moment during the dance at the wedding celebration, during which he wistfully dances steps choreographed by Lawrence Pech with only an imaginary partner.
If there was any flaw in the production, however, it could be found in paying too much attention to the house itself. The high spirits of the overture were undermined by excessively animated projections of the designs for the house, and the set itself served to summon up more venue changes than the libretto specified. Most gratuitous was the decision to set the first-act scene for Bartolo and Marcellina in the kitchen. When Marcellina gets bored with Bartolo’s self-important posturing (it does not take long), she starts dancing with a pig’s head, giving it all of the affection worthy of a pet cat. Mind you, Cook could not have been more hilarious in playing this scene; but “comic relief” generally works better towards the end of a show, rather than at the beginning.
More importantly, however, this production gave us Mozart’s music at its best, consistently delivered under the baton of Henrik Nánási. This conductor’s past SFO appearance was for Richard Strauss’ “Elektra” in the fall of 2017. This season’s effort was clearly “something completely different,” thus providing an excellent account of the breadth of Nánási’s talents. Six performances remain of a production that should not be missed on both dramatic and musical grounds in equal measure.