Arts & Events

A Wishy-Washy Staging of LE NOZZE DI FIGARO

Reviewed by James Roy MacBean
Saturday October 12, 2019 - 09:25:00 PM

On Friday, October 11, San Francisco Opera offered the first performance of a new production of the Mozart-Da Ponte opera Le Nozze di Figaro. This production, staged by Canadian director Michael Cavanagh, is the first of three Mozart-Da Ponte collaborations that will be staged by the same director in succeeding years. Cavanagh sets all three operas in the same manor house in America, and he attempts to envision three stages of development-dissolution of America in his staging of Le Nozze di Figaro, Così fan tutte, and Don Giovanni. All I can say is, if this wishy-washy staging of Le Nozze di Figaro is any indication, we the audience — and we as Americans — are in for some sloppy thinking about our national culture, whatever that may be. 

The problem with this staging of The Marriage of Figaro is that there too many half-measures. During the overture, architectural drawings are projected. Some are ground-level views; some are floor plans. The style is classical; but given the supposed setting in late 18th century America, they are supposed to be colonial or post-colonial. Is this intended to suggest that the roots of American culture are in Europe? If so, big deal. Then, as Act I opens on a scene where Figaro measures the space where he wants the marriage bed to be placed in a room not yet furnished, we get the sense that this house — and this American nation — are just at the early stages of being put together. So far, well, it’s at least possibly a good idea.  

Then we immediately notice that in this production both Figaro and his beloved Susanna are sung by blacks. Now this is interesting. If this staging is set in late 18th century or around the turn of the 19th century in America, a black Figaro and a black Susanna might well suggest that they are African slaves working on a plantation run by a Southern aristocrat. Instead of the class struggles depicted by Beaumarchais, the author of the French drama Le Marriage de Figaro, this production of the Mozart-Da Ponte The Marriage of Figaro might be exploring relations between black slaves and their slave-owning white plantation owners. But when Figaro brings in a troupe of servants to sing to their master, Count Almaviva, all Figaro’s muster of servants are white, not black. Are the blacks slaves and the servants white? What’s going on here?  

In an article in the program for this Marriage of Figaro production, Charles Chip Mc Neal, Director of Diversity, Equity and Community at San Francisco Opera — How’s that for a job title? —— relates that the choice of two black artists for the lead roles of Figaro and Susanna was made before the production’s setting [in America] was firmly established; and that “this production was not founded on the premise of negotiating historical race relations. “ Yet as Mc Neal acknowledges, with a black Figaro and a black Susanna, “no matter the intention, the optics are unmistakably clear.. The production has inadvertently stumbled onto a well-recognised socio-cultural wound.” Stumbled indeed. The question is, having stumbled on race as an issue, does this production explore race in any meaningful way? The answer, unequivocally, is no.  

One further wishy-washy detail makes it clear the answer is no. At the close of Act i when the page Cherubino is banished from the Count’s retinue to serve in the military, a flag is suddenly held aloft by Figaro and other participants. But what flag is it? It’s not the American flag we know; nor is it the Confederate flag. Perhaps it’s an early flag of the newly independent United States of America. But who knows? And, really, who cares? Flags don’t mean much to those of us who have gone through the Vietnam War, the invasions of Panama, Granade, Nicaragua, Iraq, and Afghanistan. If the flag held aloft by Figaro was the Confederate flag, what would that signify about race relations? If Figaro is here sung by a black, why would he exult in teasing Cherubino about being banished to serve in the Confederate Army? What’s galling about this production is its wishy-washy nature, It sets up what are potentially significant conflicts and issues, yet it repeatedly fails to follow up in exploring these matters. 

Okay, enough on a shaky production. Let’s cut to the singing. American bass-baritone Michael Sumuel was a vibrant, animated Figaro, and his voice was robust. As Susanna, Jeanine De Bique, listed as either from Barbados or Trinidad, sang well, but with an undersized voice that did not project throughout the Opera House. Further, the many sung recitatives in Mozart’s opera were not sung loud enough by most singers to be audible to the audience. Given that much of the humour of this opera is in the recitatives, their inaudibility was a huge loss.  

As Count Almaviva,, Hungarian baritone Levente Molnar was as oafish an Almaviva as I’ve ever encountered. In Molnar’s portrayal of Almaviva, neither in his singing nor in his acting, was there a hint of aristocratic elegance. It was oafish to the max. In the role of the Countess, American soprano Nicole Heaston sang well. Her Act II aria “Dove sono?” and Act II “Porgi amor” were moving in their intensity. Where Nicole Heaston’s stage presence is concerned, totally random lighting effects by Jane Cox played havoc with her identity. Most of the time Heaston looked white. Occasionally, however, due to the lighting, she looked black. Did director Cavanagh and lighting designer Cox intend this racial ambiguity? If so, to what end? At other moments, various characters looked blue due to absurd lighting effects. These random but irritating lighting variations provided just another wishy-washy element in a wishy-washy staging.  

Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi was a fine Cherubino. But when one has heard in this very Opera House Cherubinos such as Frederica von Stade, Faith Esham, Susan Quittmeyer, Angelika Kirschlager,, and Claudio Mahnke, to name only a few, a merely competent Cherubino, even one as vocally and dramatically competent as Serena Malfi, could not generate much excitement. As Dr. Bartolo, bass James Creswell was impressive. In the role of Marcellina, veteran mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook reenacted a role she has sung marvellously many times on our local stage. Tenor Greg Fedderly was a flighty Don Basilio. Veteran bass-baritone Bojan Knežević was an adroit Antonio. Finally, Adler Fellow soprano Natalie Image was excellent as the soubrette Barbarina. Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási led the proceedings with judicious pacing. Sets were designed by Erhard Rom, and costumes were designed by Constance Hoffman.  

Sung in Italian with English supertitles, Le Nozze di Figaro continues with seven more performances through November 1 at the War Memorial Opera House.