CONSIDERED OPINION OF THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA CONCERT OF 23 MARCH 2009
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro, K. 492. (Michael Volle, Count Almaviva; Malin Hartelius, Countess Almaviva; Martina Janková, Susanna; Ruben Drole, Figaro; Isabel Leonard, Cherubino; Diana Montague, Marcellina; Antonio Abete, Dr. Bartolo; Martin Zysset, Basilio; Andreas Winkler, Antonio; Rebeca Olvera, Barbarina; Cleveland Orchestra Chorus; Franz Welser-Möst, cond.)
"Fully staged opera returns to Severance Hall," proclaims the program book. And it's just as well to get straight exactly what we're talking about here. If you're not satisfied without large-scale flats and backdrops and scrims, this is the wrong show for you. The Severance Hall stage shell, organ pipes discreetly covered, is itself the basic setting for all four acts of the Cleveland Orchestra's The Marriage of Figaro. Stage furniture is strictly limited: cardboard cartons in the first act, chairs draped with sheets in the third, a septet of merry-go-round horses in the fourth.
But with uncanny reliability, the production, set in something like the 1930s, makes strengths of its own weaknesses. Consider those cardboard cartons. Characters hiding behind a chair and under a dress are key elements in Figaro's first act. So what do you do if you don't have a chair and a dress? In this case, you use their absence as an opportunity to develop some lively physical comedy exploiting the boxes instead.
The lack of clutter puts the focus right where it belongs—on the movements of the singers in what, thanks to director Sven-Eric Bechtolf and stage director Timo Schlüssel, is a smart, sexy, and extraordinarily kinetic version of Figaro. Scarcely a minute of the opera goes by without some little gesture to surprise you: Barbarina juggling oranges during the recitative "Nel padiglione a manca," for example. With so much busyness on the stage, the occasional directorial decision is bound to go awry. But if you're momentarily disappointed, all you need do is wait a few seconds. Something more agreeable is usually about to come your way.
The madcap comedy, underlined by Franz Welser-Möst's brisk conducting, is balanced by one of the best vocal casts you'll ever hear. Even the minor characters are outstanding. Rebeca Olvera's charming and uninhibited Barbarina opens Act Four with an absolutely heartbreaking rendition of "L'ho perduta." Nearer the top of the bill, the chambermaid Susanna, soprano Martina Janková, has an earthy sensuality that's deployed to tremendous effect in "Deh, vieni, non tardar." Ruben Drole is a slightly subdued Figaro, but there's just enough rage to sustain such music as "Se vuol ballare" without any danger of going overboard. Malin Hartelius, as the Countess, brings a well-judged dignity to "Porgi, amor" and "Dove sono"—arias that tempt lesser singers to sappiness. Isabel Leonard is a crystalline-voiced, utterly believable Cherubino.
But one might, with some reason, raise an eyebrow at Michael Volle's Count Almaviva. Is the lightweight character he creates—a would-be magician, always eager to pull a handkerchief from his sleeve—really compatible with the Countess' description of her "wild and jealous" husband? But just as you're thinking something's amiss, Almaviva's antics start to resonate with parts of the opera in unexpected ways. At the beginning of Act Three, Almaviva sits with his conjuring kit, hopelessly confused by appearances—the one thing over which an illusionist is supposed to have supreme mastery.
That's the kind of moment the Cleveland Orchestra Figaro provides again and again: pure magic.
I'm Jerome Crossley for WCLV 104/9.
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