Comic brilliance, superb singing make for memorable Mozart in Met’s “Figaro”

Thu Nov 21, 2019 at 1:53 pm
Nadine Sierra as Susanna and Adam Plachetka as the Count in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera. Photo: Marty Sohl

Le Nozze di Figaro is one of the most cherished gems of the operatic rep, and in most performances it’s not hard to tell why. Its humor, its rich characters, and, of course, Mozart’s inspired score, make it a piece with few peers in the comedic opera repertoire.

Rarely has Mozart and Da Ponte’s masterful first collaboration felt fresher or more vital than in Wednesday evening’s performance at the Metropolitan Opera. The 2014 Richard Eyre production, which began a season-long revival on Saturday, is a slick upstairs-downstairs staging, not offering a strong statement on the piece, but providing a canvas.

In Wednesday’s performance, the extraordinary cast all sang brilliantly, but it was the relentless comedy of the work that set the pace, as the performers all danced their way through the recitatives with almost native ease, showing masterful comedic timing. Marcellina’s simple “O dio!” at finding out Figaro’s identity evoked a roar of laughter from the audience that nearly stopped the scene.

As Figaro and Susanna, the household servants about to be married, Luca Pisaroni and Nadine Sierra made an enchanting pair, bringing a playful spirit to their relationship. Pisaroni gave an endearing, if somewhat reserved, portrayal of the barber-turned-butler, with a certain dryness about his sense of humor even as he pulled off increasingly ridiculous antics. It was a particular pleasure to hear his rich, oaky bass-baritone highlight the lyricism of this role, to say nothing of his vivid vocal characterizations and flawless Italianate style. The early cavatina “Se vuol ballare” was a prime example of what made his performance outstanding: his keen resentment of Count Almaviva came through clearly in his diction and phrasing without threatening the smooth consistency of his tone.

Sierra has had several turns as Susanna now, and continues to approach the role with obvious relish, as a mixture of playfulness, brashness, and even a childlike silliness went into her winning portrayal. Though she showed a tendency to stray sharp on some high notes, Susanna is still a terrific vehicle for her voice, with its amber glow in her middle range and clear, shining top. Sierra’s most nuanced singing came in the long, sighing phrases of Act IV’s “Deh, vieni, non tardar.”

Appearing as the Countess, Susanna Phillips sounded more secure than she has in years. Her tone is more slender now than in the fuller lyric roles she has attempted in the last few seasons, and without pushing for extra weight she achieves a focused sound with little evidence of the tightness that has troubled her in her upper register. Though her phrasing was a touch heavy in “Porgi amor,” Phillips nonetheless gave a lovely rendition laden with emotion. In “Dove sono,” she crafted easy, dreaming phrases, maintaining remarkable vocal control even when singing pianissimo. Her decision to come thrillingly close to giving into Cherubino’s advances added a welcome layer of complexity to her subtle portrayal of the character.

Adam Plachetka has appeared opposite Pisaroni in Nozze several times before at the Met, though with their roles reversed. This configuration, with Plachetka as the Count, yields interesting results for the characters: in addition to Pisaroni’s more reserved Figaro, we now get a hot-blooded Almaviva full of contradictions, showing clumsy flashes of anger in one moment, and tenderness in the next. Plachetka’s voice is a better fit for this role, his lean, brawny bass-baritone able to command the part with sheer power. “Vedro mentr’io sospiro,” the Count’s thrilling monologue at the top of Act III, showed a fascinating mix of emotions, as rage, outrage, sadness, and resolve all competed with each other.

The greatest revelation in this cast is the enchanting Cherubino of Gaëlle Arquez, who is making her Met debut in this revival. Her sparkling mezzo-soprano, with a quick vibrato and lemony brightness, are ideal for this energetic part. She gave an impressive performance of “Non so più,” managing extraordinary richness of color in a difficult, quick-darting little aria, and followed later with a ravishing rendition of the dreamy love song “Voi che sapete.” With a lively dramatic presence and superb comic instincts, Arquez appears to have all the necessary tools for a star career.

The excellent performances continued right down through the supporting roles. Brindley Sherratt’s booming, viscous bass was a luxury in the part of Dr. Bartolo, and Elizabeth Bishop brought a steady mezzo-soprano and bravura comic chops as Marcellina. Her testy duet with Susanna, “Via resti servita,” was a highlight of the evening.

Meigui Zhang gave a lovely performance as Barbarina, showing a warm, honeyed soprano in her Act IV aria, “L’ho perduta.” As her father, the gardner Antonio, Paul Corona was endearing with his woody bass and harried demeanor. Even Don Basilio and Don Curzio left strong impressions, as Giuseppe Filianoti and Tony Stevenson brought solid tenors and delightfully officious airs.

In his debut run at the Met, conductor Anotonello Manacorda is already showing himself to be a rare talent. Right from the start of the overture, he set the tone for the evening by drawing sharp articulation and luminous resonance from the Met orchestra. From the sublime breezes of the introduction to “Porgi Amor” to the shining warmth of the “Ah! Tutti contenti” chorus near the end of the opera, the sound coming out of the pit was rich, colorful, and varied. Particularly impressive was the cohesion of the many tricky ensemble scenes, which need to be tightly spun in order to show the genius of their complexity.

These are all the ingredients for a bewitching evening of comic opera, and the atmosphere in the house felt as lively as at any hit musical. If New Yorkers are looking for a bright evening of superb artistry over the coming holidays, this Nozze should be at the top of the list.

Le Nozze di Figaro runs through December 14 at the Metropolitan Opera. A spring cast, featuring Anita Hartig as the Countess, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as Susanna, Adam Plachetka as Figaro, and Etienne Dupuis and Mariusz Kwiecien sharing the role of Count Almaviva, runs February 5 through 22, with Cornelius Meister conducting.

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