As Good as It Gets: HGO's The Marriage of Figaro

The set-up:

Mozart's sublime opera is all about love. All kinds, from raunchy seduction to moonlight serenade. There's even an almost May/December romance between "old hag" Marcellina and young valet Figaro, until, to everyone' s horrified surprise, it's revealed that she's his mother.

Beaumarchais's scandalous play, in which low class Figaro and wife-to-be Susanna get the jump on their master Count Almaviva, who has neglected his wife and is chasing Susanna for a midnight tryst, had been banned in Paris because of the harsh light it threw on the nobility. Austrian emperor Joseph II, brother to France's queen Marie Antoinette, had also banned the play, but not stopped its publication. His reasoning: Since theatergoers never read plays, obviously no one of importance would ever know about it.

But two in Vienna did: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and playwright Lorenzo Da Ponte. Poet to the Theaters, the Venetian fox Da Ponte, confidante of Casanova, convinced the emperor to perform the play as an opera, with the scandalous bits planed down, and by the way, why not let young Mozart compose it?

The opera premiered in 1786. The profusion of encores at the first two performances led the emperor to decree that arias were not to be repeated, since they lengthened the time one spent at the theater. Vienna didn't really warm to the work; it would be in Prague, seven months later, where Marriage and Mozart were catapulted into super-stardom. The deserved clamor for this opera has never waned.

The execution:

Houston Grand Opera gives Mozart's ever-fresh, immortal work a superlative rendition, with an ensemble cast so good, with voices clean and expressive, they carry us over the sometimes glacial pace imposed by maestro James Gaffigan. There are no superstars in the cast, but everyone shines, and if there's one Mozart opera where the major characters stand equally, it's Marriage.

Bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi is a bit more of a subdued Figaro than usual, with a smaller heft to his voice, but he's certainly spirited enough when he stands up to the philandering Count or when wooing his love Susanna (soprano Adriana Kucerová). The opera opens with Figaro, soon to be married, measuring the space in their new room for their bed. It's so charming an intro, especially after the spirited overture, that it's easy to forget how audacious this bit of business was in 1786.

Not until Marriage was there a female character in opera so winning and clever as Susanna. She's the first modern woman and has all of Mozart's respect; you can hear it in the music. Of silvery voice and bright presence, Kucerova imbues her with an abundance of appeal and charm. She outdoes even Figaro in her machinations and success at carrying them through. They're an ideal tag team to take down Count Almaviva.

And the count, as embodied by bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni, is a sexy, dangerous antagonist. Tall and handsome in riding boots and ruffed shirt, he commands the stage but, constantly thwarted, never quite gets the upper hand, although his ego thinks he deserves it. As the long-suffering Countess, soprano Ellie Dehn brings regal reserve, authority, and a velvety voice to break our hearts (There wasn't a noise to be heard during her ravishing aria "Dove sono," her simple plea to return to times past when her husband still loved her.)

The "pants role" of young stud Cherubino, in love with love, is deftly handled by mezzo-soprano Marie Lenormand. A natural comedian, she positively purrs in the "buffa" scenes, when she hides behind, next to, and in the wing chair while Almaviva courts Susanna. In the subsidiary roles, mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer (randy Marcellina), bass Carlo Lepore (pompous Dr. Bartolo, who turns out to be Figaro's dad), tenor Jon Kolbet (fey music teacher Don Basilio), soprano Kiri Deonarine (spry gardener's daughter Barbarina), and bass Michael Sumuel (drunk gardener Antonio) supply all the acting and vocal facets necessary to make Mozart's musical jewel sparkle.

The verdict:

Directed by Harry Silverstein, based upon the previous staging by the late Göran Järvefelt, given an uncluttered set design by Carl Friedrich Oberle (something like Ikea goes to Drottningholm), and brought merrily to life, Mozart's mighty hymn to love in all its many guises, heartaches and joys is just about as good as it gets. This is one of HGO's most accomplished productions this season.

Houston Grand Opera's The Marriage of Figaro runs through 30 at Wortham Theater, 501 Texas. For tickets, call 713-228-6737.

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