The Met’s new Figaro

The Met narrowly dodged a labor dispute to open their season last week with Richard Eyre’s new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. While the irony is inescapable, this production wouldn’t spark a revolution even if it were July 13, 1789. Its heavy, serious visuals belie an upbeat, action-packed, superficial staging with no discernible focus and no evident relationship to the music, and the mostly undistinguished musical performance isn’t enough to redeem it.

Le nozze di Figaro. Metropolitan Opera, 9/27/2014. New production directed by Richard Eyre, sets and costumes by Rob Howell, lights by Paule Constable, choreography by Sara Erde. With Ildar Abrazakov (Figaro), Marlis Petersen (Susanna), Peter Mattei (Count), Amanda Majeski (Countess), Isabel Leonard (Cherubino), Susanne Mentzer (Marcellina), Robert Pomakov (Bartolo), Ying Fang (Barbarina)

The setting is updated to 1930s Spain. Rob Howell’s exotically tinged set is a cluster of cylinders, some of which sit on a turntable (the effect is something like a castle built of paper towel tubes with holes in their sides). (Unfortunately you can’t see it very well in any of the pictures I’ve found–the Met rarely distributes full-stage photos.) The cylinders are a very dark, decoratively carved wood which I believe is intended to represent Moroccan design. It’s a World Market, “unique” alternative to the old production’s Restoration Hardware neutrals. The lights work overtime to make it improbably illuminated, but the effect is still dark and hulking, exacerbated by the dull palette of the costumes. The turntable makes the transition between scenes quite smooth.

“Non più andrai”

But, as Intermezzo said about some other rotating stage, “the only thing that is revolutionary about it is that it turns around.” The design never establishes any connection with the story, and the whole updating seems completely superficial. Why are we in the 1930s, why are we in quasi Morocco, and what does this have to do with anything? One could put the cast in eighteenth-century costumes and the effect of the blocking and characterization would be exactly the same. (Does Team Marcellina start bopping up and down near the end of the Act II finale where they sing “che bel colpo, che bel caso”? Yes, of course they do.) When I was discussing this production with my colleague Lucy, she noted that the sets are strangely bereft of media–newspapers, magazines, books, anything–and indeed, this house doesn’t seem to have anything to do with anything happening in the greater world of the 1930s. And for me, absent any plausible dramatic connection, something about the production’s visual world seems profoundly tone deaf to the score it inhabits. Mozart’s language is one of structural clarity, harmonic transparency, and linear development, and the set’s dense surfaces and circular figures don’t work against the score in a productive way, they’re just wrong. It strikes me as a set for a Baroque opera, not Mozart. (I thought of Karol Berger’s study Bach’s Cycle, Mozart’s Arrow here.)

Like the set, the staging favors the accumulation of detail over narrative precision. There is always something to see, but the “business of the house”–servants bustling around doing their jobs–does not contribute to the whole. Also, Cherubino’s hormones have infected the whole cast with a lust so urgent that Susanna’s pickiness really does seem anomalous. (This sort of “roll in zee hay”-type Figaro was also evident in the last revival of the old production.) This is present from this new production’s opening gesture, in which a naked lady rushes downstage and quickly covers herself up. It doesn’t seem to matter who she is or where she’s coming from–though she appears ashamed–just that there she is, shirtless. Eyre’s production is suffused with casual eroticism (the type that is marketed as “look! opera is sexy!” to a skeptical public), but an unbuttoned quality leaves little space to stage the hierarchical relationships which drive the plot, from Figaro’s relationship with Marcellina to Barbarina and beyond. When Figaro becomes a sex comedy, it loses all its edge. After all, the Count and Susanna’s would-be relationship is obviously not about sex but about power.

“Voi che sapete”

In short, the production is the rush job that we know it was. In the Times, Eyre described himself as choosing from the “opera supermarket” of the cast’s previous experiences, and that recycled, collage approach is very evident. Eyre is competent, and it’s never unwatchable or even as dull as Michael Grandage’s Don Giovanni. But the production packs no punch at all, never aspiring to gravity or significance beyond the farce, and that’s profoundly disheartening. A new production is not only a time to replace aging costumes but also to rethink a work’s meaning, to present a sharp and focused point of view, and the latter half of that equation does not seem to have occurred to anyone. (It wasn’t evident in Eyre’s Werther last season either.)

A stellar cast and musical performance could have made this disappointment less acute, but it was pretty middle of the road. James Levine’s conducting was worryingly erratic, sometimes picking beautiful textures from the orchestra, and in the finales building quite nicely, but more often losing all momentum altogether. In all, this was a very slow performance. The tempos seemed to stress out some of the singers, and certainly sapped the dramatic energy. The very enthusiastic continuist attempted to make up for this single (well, double) handedly with torrents of notes in the recit, but that wasn’t the best effect either. (Would it kill the Met to use a fortepiano sometime?)

Count and Susanna, I mean, Countess

While the cast didn’t seem to have many united goals, there were some standouts. The best was Peter Mattei’s Count, a known quantity to me. This was the same interpretation I saw him do in the old production–on a power trip, and dangerous–which isn’t the point of a new production, but it works. His voice is as velvety as ever and his “Contessa perdono” is the most beautiful in the business. Marlis Petersen’s Susanna was also successful. Vocally, she’s a somewhat odd casting choice; she’s spent most of her career in the stratospheric range of Lulu and this sounds like it may be uncomfortably low for her. Sometimes the tone became a bit unfocused and spread. But she is refined and elegant, and a good actress.


Amanda Majeski’s Countess (her debut) tended to stay in the shadows, showing little of the passionate characterization so evident in her Philadelphia Donna Elvira earlier this year. But her singing is interesting and promising: an unusually distinctive sound, cool and reedy with a slightly fluttery vibrato (she reminds me a little of Anne Schwanewilms), very nice up to a slightly underwhelming top. Her “Dove sono” was successfully meditative, but the phrases lacked the last bit of direction–probably because of Levine’s funereal tempo.

Two of the singers had obvious appeal to the audience but I found them puzzling. Ildar Abdrazakov’s Figaro was likeable enough but one-dimensional and generalized. His singing is perfectly reliable and clean (he even sneaked in some ornaments near the end of “Se vuol ballare,” the only cast member who managed as much as a passing tone), but he’s not very complex or magnetic. And I just didn’t get Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino. She was the victim of several of Levine’s stranger conducting decisions, and she stayed with him, but her dry and biting tone is unattractive and her acting was irritatingly over the top, more mugging than portrayal. In the smaller roles, Ying Fang was a smashing Barbarina who sounds like she’s ready for bigger things, Susanne Mentzer was unusually tasteful as Marcellina, and substitute Robert Pomokov was perfectly fine as Bartolo.

This wouldn’t be bad for a third revival, but for opening night it’s unfortunate.

My Beaumarchais beat goes on tomorrow night at Opera Philadelphia’s Barber of Seville. (I last blogged about Figaro and Barber too, oddly enough. Oh well, can’t really beat ’em.)

Photos copyright Ken Howard/Met.


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  1. Cheers for the account. Glad to see someone else puzzled by Leonard. I've heard many good things about her but when I finally heard her in a radio relay of the Met Cosi earlier this year she left me completely nonplussed. I thought maybe it was just that role but I guess not…?

  2. I just saw this and I only stayed for the last two acts because of Mattei. I loved Petersen in Lulu but for the reasons you stated this is not a great role for her. I would like to hear Majeski sing this role with a conductor who didn't make it an exercise in breath control. Based on this and last season's Falstaff anyone going to Meistersinger (an opera which Levine has always thought was too short) better pack an overnight bag. I actually thought moving the opera to circa 1930 during the Great Depression and with the Spanish Civil War just a few years off could be interesting–but that what would require a director who has some thoughts about the opera other than "it's about sex" as Eyre states in the program. I always thought Figaro was about politics and power with sex as a plot device and metaphor. Isn't that one of the big reasons it is on the short list of greatest operas ever written? I also thought it interesting that Eyre is quoted in the program that he wanted to move it "to a period that was enormously sexually charged." I recall him stating that he moved another opera set in Seville–Carmen–to the Spanish Civil War because he wanted to set in a time that was sexually repressive–well I guess Franco wasn't a fun guy (btw if I ran an opera company and a director said he wanted to set Carmen during the Spanish Civil War I would throw him out the window–that was a cliche 30 years ago). On the plus side we didn't have the Count hitting his finger with a hammer and we didn't have the universal lacking a seal gesture. Also we were spared the "Hippie" Figaro with disco dancing at the end of the third act (which I always thought was strange since Hippies hated Disco). Well we have the Cosi set in 1950s Coney Island to look forward to, because we all know its just a rom-com with music.

  3. Thanks for the comments. I'm an autodidact in the opera lover world. Just learning from others. I did particularly enjoy Majeski's voice. This opera has so many gorgeous songs.