The Canadian Opera Company has chosen to revive its 2016 production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro that was directed by Claus Guth for its 2023 opener. No one doubts Guth’s intelligence and brilliance as an opera director and even a cursory view of his career reveals a man who has directed many productions at the top tier of opera houses.
The current revival was marvelously sung but it has so many incomprehensible, annoying and pretentious angles that they almost succeeded in wrecking one of the best comic operas in the repertoire. Mozart and the singers fought back fiercely and the evening went well despite Guth’s ideas and intentions whatever they might be.
Let’s look at the positive aspects of the production that make it worth seeing and received enthusiastic approval from the audience. In no particular order, I heap praise on soprano Lauren Fagan on her mainstage debut at the COC. As Countess Almaviva, she sang with beauty and passion in spite of being mauled by Cherubim (stay tuned) during her singing. She sang “Dove Sono” with a gorgeous vibrato teeming with emotion.
Soprano Andrea Carroll as Susanna, Figaro’s spunky fiancée and the Countess’s maid showed vocal talent and comic ability as she tried to survive the Count’s and Cherubino’s lust. As with almost everyone else in the cast, she had to act with the serious if not deadly constraints put upon her by Guth.
Bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni as Figaro was dressed almost identically with the aristocratic Count Almaviva sung by bass-baritone Gordon Bintner. They sang with lively sonority. Pisaroni has a lot of comic parts to do but he had to settle for the few opportunities allowed him by the director. Bintner sounded authoritarian in voice and manner until he was brought to the marvelous scene of grace where he asked his wife to pardon him for his unfounded suspicions and misconduct.
The hormone-driven Cherubino can be hilarious but in this production, he was amusing and vocally highly adept. He is permanently sexually aroused and Guth allows him to paw and maul the Countess, Susanna and Barbarina (Mireille Asselin) to the point of almost simulated coitus. I am not exaggerating. We see him on top of the Countess and Suzanna.
Toronto veteran bass Robert Pomakov’s Dr. Bartolo was right on the mark with his singing and comic business and with Megan Latham’s Marcellina they made the perfect pair.
Guth’s helpful comments from the 2011 staging of this production are noteworthy. He stated that in Figaro “Mozart not only allows all kinds of intense human passions but also portrays how they can get out of control and escalate to extremes.” He further pointed out that he wanted “to follow the characters into their darkest psychological depths.” We may have enjoyed the production a lot better if he kept in mind that this is a comic opera that does indeed deal with love, manipulation, jealousy, mistaken identity and in the end resolution and a happy ending.
Let’s take Guth’s invented, silent character, Cherubim (Uli Kirsch). He is dressed the same way as Cherubino except for the angel’s wings on his back. He appears at the beginning of the opera when he jumps on the stage through a window and what appears at first as a curiosity becomes increasingly more annoying as he drops in with frightful regularity ad nauseum. I have no idea what he is supposed to do or represent. He jumps on the Count’s shoulders, interferes with what people are doing and never fails to be a nuisance that should have been kept in Guth’s imagination instead of being foisted on us. He is invisible to the rest of the cast and I wish he would have done us the same favour.
When it comes to human passion, Cherubino and the Count are believers and practitioners of sexual assault as they grab women in Trumpesque fashion to the point where abuse is the mildest term one can use. The Count garbs his distraught wife so forcefully that she slaps him. None of the extent of sexual abuse shown by Guth exists in the opera. This may be descending into the psychological depth of the characters but all you are doing is removing the comedy of the opera. In short, the singers deliver solid singing. For the rest they have millstones around their necks and with or without a Cherubim they manage to erase the fun of The Marriage of Figaro and as for the darkest psychological depths, I will take a pass.
The set by Christian Schmidt consists of a large stairwell with an open space at the bottom. That is supposed to be Figaro and Susanna’s bedroom and he usually measures a place for their bed, There is no measuring in this production except for a ridiculous gesture by Figaro. In the later part of the opera the stairs are removed and the action takes place in a bare space with grey walls and no furniture at all.
The costumes by Schmidt are all aggressively modern black and white. The cast could pass for puritans.
The music by is deliciously played by the COC Orchestra conducted by Harry Bicket.
The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart opened on January 27 and will be performed a total of eight times until February 18, 2023, at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts, 145 Queen Street West, Toronto, Ontario. Tel: 416-363-6671. www.coc.ca