October 12, 2015 – For their new production of one of Mozart’s most enchanting operatic works, Lyric Opera of Chicago has pulled out all the stops. Lyric’s general director, Anthony Freud, has assembled a world class cast of brilliant seasoned artists bringing to full bloom some of the most beautiful music ever written for the operatic stage. He has enlisted the talents of Drama Desk and American Theatre Wing Award-winning set designer James Noone to craft a clean, yet opulent, milieu through which to visualize Mozart’s farcical narrative. He’s brought on emerging Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási in his American debut to lead a brisk reading of Mozart’s bright and lucid score, and he’s harnessed the force of nature that is director Barbara Gaines, founder and artistic director of Chicago Shakespeare Theater (CST), to shake up things a bit with fresh new perspective in an inspired staging that adds depth and dimension to punctuate the cheeky wit of Mozart’s 230 year old work.
Gaines backed up a big and gave herself a deliciously licentious running start in a pre-scene vignette that saw Count Almaviva chasing a young tart down the far left aisle of Civic Opera House, onto the stage and furtively behind a beautifully appointed dropcloth that stretched to the very top of Lyric’s expansive proscenium arch. And just as the opera’s famous Overture was to close, there she was, Countess Almaviva, curiously following behind, reaching the stage and stretching upward. With a single tug came down that sprawling dropcloth. It seemed to fall in the slowest of motion, revealing the Count and that tart in a more than compromising position and scurrying quickly off the stage. It was probably the most vividly spectacular opening of The Marriage of Figaro I have ever witnessed and a sure sign of things to come.
The production marks Gaines’ sophomore effort in operatic direction, and with her vast experience in directing the works of Shakespeare (more than 30 of the Bard’s plays at CST alone), one would expect a dramatic take on a period piece that focused much of its attention on the hidden places in its characters’ hearts and minds. What one gets in this staging is nothing short of virtuosic. In the program for the performance, she noted a respect for the opera’s inherent passion and beauty. Gaines’ creative mind brought fresh life that beauty that a more myopic operatic director might struggle to envision, precisely why it was a stroke of brilliance for Freud to tap Gaines to helm this new production.
We all know the story: Figaro engages an amusing tug-of-war with the lecherous Count Almaviva, who has made it his mission in life to bed Susanna—Figaro’s betrothed—by way of an antiquated feudal rite that gives him the power to do so before their wedding day. Figaro is, therefore, teamed with Susanna and Countess Almaviva to enact a plan that thwarts those efforts until the couple wed (and by the Count, no less) and keep the purity of his beloved in tact. It’s all very ridiculous, but, as familiar as these scenes are, the scenarios play out with remarkable hilarity when the remarkable music of this opera is utilized in concert with the staging to help the tale unfold.
In this new production Gaines goes a step further with sharp physical humor, a calculated set design and a delightfully salacious edge to add rich depth and dimension to these very familiar scenes that, from a staging perspective at least, might otherwise become a simple dance of characters. A carefully placed pillow, for instance, used to shield a young boy’s enthusiasm over the presence of two beautiful women ferments for the eye the message of the lyrics we are hearing. White puffs that fly up after that boy jumps down out of a window (and out of view) brilliantly augment the humor and absurdity of the scene we’re.
Greater depth and dimension lead to a greater awareness of the themes at work in this comedic opera, and Gaines’ imaginative eye is pivotal to forging the way for us to see them more clearly.
Of course, Gaines had a bit of help in seeing this new production to its delightful fruition. Lyric cast Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka in the title role, adding more than just his lush, lyric tone to Mozart’s melodies. Plachetka’s deft articulation of the Italian text and his elegant intonation make his recitative singing just as beautiful to hear as his arias. German soprano Christiane Karg is in force as Susanna in her American debut. Karg’s luminous soprano offers some of the most nuanced singing heard in this production, and her fourth act performance of Deh! vieni, non tardar (where she baits Figaro’s jealousy) is simply beguiling with scintillating warmth and gorgeous phrasing. And Amanda Majeski is perfection in the role of Countess Almaviva. Her performance creates the perfect balance of vulnerability and strength as she maneuvers between the two emotions onstage and in voice. Her third act lament Porgi amor is achingly poignant and fraught with the pathos of unrequited love. Her matchless tone seems to be quite effortless, exploiting Mozart’s melodic architecture with warm leading tones and supple phrasing. It is difficult not ache for her when she sings about the loss of her husband’s affections.
Of course, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni adds considerably to the strength of this production. A veteran to the role of Count Almaviva, Pisaroni navigates Mozart’s melodies with finesse and aplomb. His tone is as imposing as his stature, which lends well to the ‘tit-for-tat’ nature of his relationship with Figaro onstage.
This new production benefits greatly also from some lavish costume designs in the work of Susan Mickey, who is no stranger to visually arresting period productions. She gained critical acclaim earlier this year for her work in CST’s summer production of Sense and Sensibility. Her whimsical designs add a lush warmth to the stagescape of this performance, all in concert with Gaines’ playful and lusty context.
At the end of the day, tapping an acclaimed theater director to bring to life a new production of a beloved opera may seem like a bit of a risky move for a top tier company like the Lyric. After all, a work like The Marriage of Figaro comes with great expectations. But then again, fresh new perspective on a 230 year old opera, beloved as it is, when done with respect for its inherent beauty only deepens our love for the work in the first place.
If you haven’t yet seen this new, imaginative production, don’t let any grass grow under your feet. It runs only through October 24 at Civic Opera House.
Clef Notes Chicagoland Journal for the Arts
Bass-baritone Adam Plachetka and soprano Christiane Karg star as the happy (and hopeful) couple in Lyric Opera's new production of The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart, directed by Barbara Gaines (photo by Todd Rosenberg).