Thursday, January 21, 2016
[Photo by Tristram Kenton for The Guardian from the original Glyndebourne Festival Opera performances of this production (co-produced by Houston Grand Opera). Pictured are Lydia Teuscher and Vito Priante as Susanna and Figaro.]
For once I'm writing about an opera while there are still plenty of opportunities to see it here in Houston. So here it is: if you've been thinking about trying out an opera but have been unsure, this is the one. The Marriage of Figaro is a classic comedy of deception and disguises in the name of love and (more often) lust. It's composed by Mozart, so contains some of the world's prettiest music, and it's sung in Italian (with English surtitles), which is possibly the world's prettiest language.
But the best part about this production is that it's set in the 1970s and it totally works. I mean, it doesn't just work -- it's a complete blast. You just haven't lived until you've seen an opera cast dancing the Monkey and the Twist to Mozart. If that sounds too over-the-top, don't worry -- it's muted and modified so that nothing is too much. There is just enough 70s in this production to be recognizable and fun without being ludicrous.
And setting the production in the 1970s wasn't an excuse to skimp on the sets or make them kitschy or campy. These sets, by designer Christopher Oram, are among the most lush and sophisticated I've ever seen. In the first half of the opera, the action takes place in three locations: the outside of the Count's palatial summer home (where the Count and Susanna literally drive up in an Austin Healey), an interior bedroom that will be Susanna and Figaro's quarters once they marry, and the Countess's boudoir. In the second half, we see the palace hall where the weddings take place, and the garden where everything finally gets sorted. The massive scenery rotates seamlessly, and each set seems more impeccably detailed than the last.
As for the performances in last night's dress rehearsal, I think the women really stole the night, with Heidi Stober as Susanna, Ailyn Pérez as Countess Almaviva, Lauren Snouffer as (young male) Cherubino, and Purem Jo as Barbarina. The artist meant to sing the role of Count Almaviva, Joshua Hopkins, was ill, so a gentleman whose name I didn't catch walked the part on-stage while HGO Studio Artist Ben Edquist stepped in to sing the part from the side-stage. Adam Plachetka was enjoyable as Figaro, but for voice, presence, and comedic acting, my favorite male singer was Peixin Chen as Dr. Bartolo. And speaking of acting, the comedic body language by many of the characters (especially Susanna) was delicious.
When it comes down to it, though, the music is the real attraction. From the overture to the arias, this is some of Mozart's best. My favorite moment, musically, is the letter duet, when the Countess dictates to Susanna a fake letter, in which Susanna invites the Count to meet her in the garden. It's truly exquisite.
Another fun thing for me is that I'm starting to recognize the performers, from the stars that the Houston Grand Opera brings in for most of the lead roles, to the former or current HGO Studio artists. HGO has a brilliant program here that's feeding the opera world. Fortunately for us, the alumni often come back for a visit.
Opening night is tomorrow (January 22, 2016), with additional performances on January 24, January 30, February 3, February 5, and February 7. I can't wait to see it again.