Reviewed by James Karas
In a recent survey conducted by BBC Music Magazine “172 of the world’s finest opera singers” (according to BBC) chose The Marriage of Figaro as the greatest opera ever written. Opera Atelier was not waiting for a survey to be persuaded to revive its 2010 production of The Marriage of Figaro but no one can possibly complain that it did.
Director Marshall Pynkoski has chosen to produce the opera in English and use Jeremy Sams’ fluid and colloquial translation. Excellent choices. Many directors move the date of an opera forward from today to some futuristic, robotic era. Pynkoski moves The Marriage back to the era and distinctive style of commedia dell’arte. The end result is an outstanding and thoroughly enjoyable night at the opera.
Peggy Kriha Dye (Countess Almaviva) and Stephen Hegedus (Count Almaviva). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Choosing the commedia dell’arte style has many advantages. It allows for comic business, including some slapstick that provides healthy laughter. The elegant costumes by Martha Mann and colourful sets by Gerard Gauci are perfect accompaniments for Jeannette Lajeunesse Zingg’s choreography. Thus we get the best of both worlds: the comic business of commedia dell’arte and the grace and sophistication of baroque.
Opera in English is still the exception and there are good reasons for being reluctant to indulge in full-scale Anglicized libretti. Jeremy Sams’ translation does illustrate some of the issues. The open vowels of “La vendetta” and the rounded o’s of “Dove sono” are not available in the English translation but some of the awkwardness we feel may be simply a matter of habit. If we heard The Marriage of Figaro, say, twenty times in Italian, hearing it in English may sound stranger than it really is. Try the reverse.
Pynkoski has assembled a cast that can act and sing. Start with the heroes of the piece. Bass-baritone Douglas Williams as Figaro has to be wily, smart (but not as smart as his fiancée Susanna) and display vocal and physical agility. Williams delivers a delightful Figaro.
Soprano Mireille Asselin’s Susanna has intuitive intelligence, splendid vocal delivery and a marvelous comic delineation of the clever servant. Soprano Peggy Kriha Dye gives us a mature and moving Countess who married for love and lives with the Count’s gross infidelity. She sings her lament for lost love “Porgi, amor” (“Hear my prayer, humbly I beg you”) and “Dove Sono” (“I remember his love so tender”) where memory of past happiness and hopes for future joy and love blend gorgeously. I could have done with a bit less movement in the latter aria but that’s just quibbling.
Bass-baritone Stephen Hegedus’s Count Almaviva is a jealous, quick-tempered and lithe Lothario for whom a skirt is a target and fidelity is a nuisance. We enjoy his singing and shenanigans and find extra pleasure in his ultimate comeuppance which provides a scene of forgiveness and redemption that becomes a moment of grace and enchantment.
Mireille Asselin (Susanna) and Douglas Williams (Figaro). Photo by Bruce Zinger.
Mezzo-soprano Mireille Lebel was full of hormonal energy as Cherubino. Laura Pudwell as Marcellina, Gustav Andreassen as Bartolo, Olivier Laquerre as Antonio and Christopher Enns as Basilio and Don Curio delivered the comedy and singing assigned to them unfailingly. And Grace Lee as barbarian gets to sing the aria “I have lost it, I am so stupid” very effectively.
The Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra does its usual fine work under the baton of David Fallis.
A few words to dampen your enthusiasm about The Marriage of Figaro being chosen as the greatest opera ever. La Boheme came in second and Tosca placed sixth. Verdi sneaked in ninth place with Otello and Wagner made the grade with Tristan und Isolde in tenth place. Chacun à son goût, as they say, but those are head-scratching choices by any operatic measuring stick.
In any event, the highest accolade one can pay to Opera Atelier’s production of The Marriage of Figaro is that it is an expression of civilization. Kenneth Clark in his famous series Civilization said that he could not give a definition of civilization but he recognized it when he saw it. You may not be able to define a stunning and wonderful opera production but when you see this Marriage of Figaro you will recognize it. And it is civilized.