“Cabell’s Countess Makes Lyric Opera’s Stellar ‘Figaro’ Complete,” wrote a triumphant Lawrence Johnson in his review of this season’s Nozze di Figaro for the Chicago Classical Review! You can imagine my excitement and expectations: Cabell was going to be a real treat as a last-minute replacement of an indisposed Anne Schwanewilms who sounded really bad on the short video clips on the Lyric Opera’s website on account of a bronchitis. Was this going to be then the perfect Nozze after Covent Garden’s almost perfect Barbiere I attended this past July, DiDonato’s broken leg and Keenlyside’s cancellation due to illness notwithstanding?
The answer is unfortunately no. To be sure, this was a very entertaining and highly satisfying, world-class performance featuring such great operatic stars like Kyle Ketelsen (Figaro), Danielle De Niese (Susanna), Nicole Cabell (Countess Almaviva), Mariusz Kwiecien (Count Almaviva), Joyce DiDonato (Cherubino), and Andrea Silvestrelli (Don Bartolo), and a youthful cast, all in excellent form. Yes, unlike the usual practice of opera houses to cast aged mezzos and sopranos in vocal decline as Marcellina, everyone in the cast was young, in early to mid career which was great. And then there was the orchestra (deeeeeeeeep sigh!).
Was this the orchestra of the Lyric Opera of Chicago that I have seen numerous times in the past? And was this really its director, Sir Andrew Davis? Surely something was seriously wrong, and I cannot quite put my finger as to either what or why on earth! This was not the first time the Lyric Opera produced Figaro. Neither was this the premiere, but the fifth or sixth performance (the March 18th matinée), so surely those people would have learned their parts, would have rehearsed, would have their sh*t together, right?
Well, wrong! As I entered the main auditorium, I was greeted by the ominous sounds of the long-suffering clarinetist who was rehearsing the difficult passages of the overture all by himself! This should have warned me! Both orchestra and director gave an unacceptable performance in the first two acts, displaying often amateurish lack of coordination, especially with the singers whose stage collaboration was exemplary. The latter sometimes appeared alarmed at the orchestra’s problems, not to mention that their voices were initially covered before the orchestra settled on its sound and volume. Davis also adopted relatively slow tempi, perhaps to challenge the singers, or was it because his orchestra had issues? The situation was markedly improved in the last two acts with the same problems resurfacing from time to time.
Next, there was the production! HUUUUUUUUUUUUGE sigh! Enter the American mentality and desire for lavish and heavy sets indicative of a “provincial,” second-rate taste, or rather lack thereof! This was also the Sir Peter Hall 1973 Glyndenbourne production, known to opera buffs through the 1973 performance, available on DVD, starring such opera legend like Kiri Te Kanawa, Ileana Cotrubas, and Frederica von Stade. Which was a VERY dated, seventies production, with sets in bad rococo imitation. Fortunately this time around they did not opt for the seventies hairdo for the women (who shall forget Te Kanawa and Cotrubas’ hairdos?). However, the makeup artist had apparently been instructed to use the same type of ugly and intrusive eye shadow of the seventies!! De Niese therefore sported a horrible blue eye-shadow that was visible from far. I chuckled as I remembered the bestselling make-up self-help book by popular, self-appointed cosmetics cop, Paula Begoun, entitled Blue Eyeshadow Should Absolutely Be Illegal! It looks as though the Lyric Opera, in decline because of the financial crisis, situated in a city that is not what it used to be in the US and in the world, feels that they should acquire all previously successful, expensive, and now dated, and outdated, European hand-me-downs. Thus they recently bought the Covent Garden Zeffirelli Tosca, produced for none other than Maria Callas, and Peter Hall’s Glyndenbourne Figaro.
And then there was the man himself, i.e. Peter Hall, who came for the production, and appears to have forced the principals, many of whom I have seen live before, so I know for a fact they are excellent actors, to adopt the “park and bark” approach. The only people who moved away from this for their own different reasons were Marius Kwiecen and Danielle De Niese. The former had clearly thought out his role and interpreted Count Almaviva as a benign version of Don Giovanni. He also adopted embellishments that had been composed by Mozart for Figaro’s revival. On the other hand, De Niese is too narcissistic and self-centered to understand that this is an ensemble production where Figaro is arguably the main character and not Susanna. Other than that, the rendition of the score by the rest of the cast was conservative, without embellishment, along the lines of productions of the 1960s and 1970s. This was by no means a modern performance, and that is a pity, especially when there are so many great ones out there like David McVicar’s for Covent Garden, still a traditional one, set in the early 19th century, but extremely original and alive.
Fortunately the cast was superb, a smoothly blended ensemble, and all of them in great voice. I would single out Kwiecien’s Count Almaviva and Joyce DiDonato’s Cherubino who rivaled Frederica von Stade’s, no small feat. Kwiecen and Finley are arguably the best Counts out there right now with Rodney Gilfry a possible third. Ketelsen was a convincing, great Figaro (my own favorite is Schrott), and he did have good chemistry with De Niese. Cabell has a great voice and the Countess is a perfect role for her. However, she still needs to grow into it, and it was obvious that she has only recently begun singing it. As for De Niese, well, she has a pleasing lyric soprano voice, not too large, but with good projection, and somewhat identifiable. She certainly sounds better in a live performance than on recorded CDs, judging from her Handel and Mozart albums tht leave a lot to be desired. But then again, Susanna is a relatively easy and straightforward role. On the negative side, it was obvious that she had copied many of Cotrubas’ mannerisms which is a pity. She should also be less self-absorbed and full of herself, and while she reminds me of Kathleen Battle, she does not have her unpleasantness and knows how to cover her arrogance. At any rate, if she continues to choose her roles carefully, and given her recent marriage to Gus Christie, she should continue to enjoy a successful career and major gigs. Last, but not least, the supporting cast was solid, and I am looking forward to their future careers.
All in all, this was an enjoyable afternoon and a good performance that could have been better. The program was as unattractive and pointless as ever, nothing compared to the rich booklet sold by Covent Garden at a steep price, but totally worth it. Still, the Met program is even worse. Come to think, there was only one highlight, Sir Peter Hall’s musings on Margaret Thatcher’s reactions to Figaro and her anger at Hall’s assurance that sublime Mozart could display a temper and actually swear and use dirty language! I particularly enjoyed his equation of Thatcher with the Archbishop of Salzburg that Mozart so hated. Last, but not least, whoever translated the libretto did a lousy job, so those who are not familiar with it missed out on all the jokes and often read totally unrelated stuff. In the end, I think I still prefer the McVicar production of Figaro for Covent Garden, but I cannot complain because my poor brother did not have the benefit of an uplifting Mozart. Sadly he spent his time watching Ibsen's highly depressing Ghosts at London's West End!! (Yikes!) Yes, it could have been much worse than Sir Peter Hall and the nostalgic Americans, ever fond of lavishness and past European glitter.