For the title role, the COC engaged Josef Wagner, who made his company debut on this occasion. This Austrian baritone has a rather dark timbre for Figaro, yet he brought a nimble vocal dexterity to the role. Dramatically, he could turn on a dime, and be anything that any situation required of him – while all the while staying focused on his goal of marrying Susanna.
Soprano Jane Archibald didn’t try to match Wagner’s mercurial style: her Susanna was a simple girl with some common sense (a quality sorely lacking in most of the other characters). She inhabited her role with a pleasing lightness, and just a touch of a coloratura flutter, in her voice.
Erin Wall was a revelation as the Countess. Whenever she appeared, she oozed dignity and self-pity – and was so weighed down by life that she couldn’t keep a fur coat on her shoulders. Her rich, velvety soprano voice was pure lyricism in “Dove sono i bei momenti?” She was very well matched with Archibald, and they sang together in perfect balance.
As Cherubino, Emily Fons made what is sometimes a tangential role into a central one. Convincingly boyish in appearance, yet with a clear, womanly mezzo voice, she made Cherubino into a victim of his own ardent (if somewhat confused) desires.
And where, on the face of the earth, could the COC hope to find a better Almaviva than baritone Russell Braun? In his hands, the Count became a sleazy version of Downton Abbey’s Earl of Grantham – aristocratic and entitled, but never quite sure what is going on in his own house. Moreover, Braun sang this role like it was written for him.
This kind of spot-on casting extended all the way down the page. Tenor Michael Colvin was a crooning, cloying figure as Don Basilio, mezzo Helene Schneiderman was a hectoring force as Marcellina, bass Robert Pomakov was a stentorian Bartolo – and soprano Sasha Djihanian, as Barbarina, made her “Pin” aria a thing of arresting beauty.
But if this Figaro was vocally unimpeachable, its staging courted controversy.
The production (which came to the COC from the Salzburg Festival) updated the opera to the early 20th century. Set and costume designer Christian Schmidt created a starkly black-and-white world inside a grand old mansion in need of a paint job. While his set was a pleasant thing to look at, it became a claustrophobic space – especially in the outdoor scenes that were kept indoors. (For this reason, most of the staging for Act IV made no literal sense at all.)
For this conception of Figaro, we can thank the original director, Claus Guth – and we can thank him for much more, besides. In his hands, the suggested relationship between the Countess and Cherubino becomes an explicit affair. It was also Guth’s idea to create a pantomime Cupid, played by Uli Kirsh, whose talents include juggling and riding a unicycle. Cupid’s mischievous, unseen interference is made the driving force behind the action – and he’s particularly hard on Almaviva, wrestling with him, and painting a black X on his chest. Guth certainly did not lack for ideas – and he had no qualms about making this production a vehicle for them.
Anyone who would conduct Figaro is faced with a dilemma. The opera is a long one, and a conductor can either accept this a “given” or try to “do something about it.” COC music director Johannes Debus chose the former approach, and in his hands the performance was rich in detail, with plenty of room to breathe. Fortepianist Jordan de Souza was Debus’s ally here, in his florid and elegant continuo passages.
And what, in the end, did all this add up to? This Figaro is musically impressive and visually thought-provoking. For anyone who enjoys an opera production that really digs into a score and its libretto, this one is a must-see.
© Colin Eatock 2016