“Marriage of Figaro”
July 25, 2018
by Christopher Hyde
If you don’t have tickets already, buy whatever is available for Opera Maine’s new production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” on Friday. It has everything—a great cast of singers, an interesting Downton Abbey-style set by Portland’s Christopher Akerlind, an understandable plot (if chaotic at times), Mozart’s music played by a fine orchestra under maestro Stephen Lord, humor, romance and sex. Even the supertitles are good.
Thanks to artistic director Dona D. Vaughn for one of the most memorable presentations of this work in recent years.
Where to begin? Probably with Figaro himself, sung by bass-baritone Robert Mellon. If he were not a world-class singer, he could make a career as a stand-up comic. HIs facial expressions as he tries desperately to explain events in the countess’ chamber are priceless, like his antics with the dowdy Marcellina, sung by mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick. He is perfectly cast.
Speaking of perfect, soprano Maeve Höglund as Figaro’s betrothed, Susanna, had better be careful or she will be type-cast as Mozart’s favorite heroine. She is a fine actress, and her voice has remarkable clarity and power without a hint of shrillness. Her duets with soprano Danielle Pastin, as Countess Almaviva, are enthralling in their subtle contrasts of tone and timbre.
Baritone Keith Phares makes an ideal foil for Figaro and Susanna’s machinations as the pretty-boy Count Almaviva who has abolished his droit de seigneur powers because he can fool around quite as well without them. I got the impression that the lovely flower-girl chorus was composed primarily of his conquests among the servants.
Among the principals, mezzo-soprano Hongni Wu stole the show as the equally lecherous Cherubino, the teenaged go-between who loves the Countess but will take anything he can get. He/she lightens up the stage whenever she appears. My theory is that she is Mozart, who puts himself in his operas the way Alfred Hitchcock did in movies.
The ancillary roles are sung and acted with humor and authenticity. Special mention should be made of bass Kevin Glavin, as the scheming Dr. Bartolo. His rapid-fire rendition of legal polysyllables must have inspired Rossini’s “Largo al factotum,” in his own “Barber of Seville.”
The Victorian sets work quite well, as do the costumes by Millie Hiibel. The first three acts take place in rooms typical of those in a British manor, suggested by a tapestry-like background. They provide a feeling of intimacy, yet with ample room for Mozart’s characteristic device of characters at odds with each other singing from opposite sides of the stage.
The final seduction scene, however, takes place in a “pine grove” portrayed by huge pinecone-like scales in the background, with the foreground dominated by two giant segmented horns. Tree trunks, phallic symbols, or the duplicate horns of a cuckold? The characters in their cloaks look like wraiths, indicating that something serious is at stake.
But all is resolved in the end, the lighting becomes more cheerful, Susanna and Figaro, and the Count and Countess are reconciled, and the entire cast joins in a gigantic chorus. The curtain falls and it is time for the cheers, bravos and flowers.
Next year “The Magic Flute.”
Christopher Hyde is a writer and musician who lives in Pownal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.