The show must go on! That old showbiz canard applies even to the tony opera.
Houston Grand Opera's Friday premiere (in co-production with England's acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival Opera) of Mozart's sublime The Marriage of Figaro (1786) lost its leading baritone at the last moment because of illness. Joshua Hopkins was to portray the philandering Count Almaviva, who is the object of servant Figaro's revenge plot when the randy aristocrat attempts to seduce Figaro's bride-to-be, Susanna, on their wedding night. It's the opera's linchpin role; without him, there's no Marriage. What's the opera to do?
Apparently there was no understudy for Hopkins, but HGO has deep resources to mine. Young Studio Artist Ben Edquist, to be heard in March in Carlisle Floyd's world premiere Prince of Players, playing crossdressing Restoration actor Edward Kynaston, stood to our right at a lectern and sang Almaviva, while the show's revival director, Ian Rutherford, acted the role. He knew the libretto instinctively and lip-synced to Edquist impressively. Fortunately, Hopkins's costumes fit him perfectly, too. It took no time at all for us to adjust to this impromptu staging: voice to the right, actor center stage.
However, this was the most startling thing about the production. Laced with some of Mozart's most radiant music for the voice (the Countess's “Dove sono” can break your heart with its rueful longing for past passion), cracking in its sharp ironic comedy as servants get the better of their masters, Marriage is never dull – until now.
It doesn't look dull. The sex comedy is set in '70s Morocco, and designer Christopher Oram overlays it with Moorish arches, richly colored tessellated walls, hanging lamps, a tented ceiling for the Countess's bedroom, and thatched palm chairs, while his costume designs run the gamut of Carnaby Street attire: a Beatles moptop for pants-role Cherubino, Zandra Rhodes painted swirls for the Countess, a cranberry velvet suit with bell bottoms for Almaviva. A gorgeous cream and red sports car conveys the Count and Countess to their villa during the overture. But lighting designer Paule Constable's side wash is garish, leaving some singers hidden behind shadows cast by those standing next to them. Why this mod period circa Marrakesh is used for Marriage is never satisfactorily explained. It's a look, I guess, and at least doesn't interfere with Mozart and librettist da Ponte's universal themes. Everything else does, however.
There are no surprises or much originality. Production director Michael Grandage, a multiple-award-winning theater director, overlays the prickly comedy with low-rent comedy shtick and not much heart. It's all rather ordinary. Maestro Harry Bicket doesn't help either with slow, dry tempi when this opera should bounce and glitter. The singing helped move things along, though.
In his HGO debut, bass-baritone Adam Plachetka is a lively big lug of a Figaro, turning his attack on the randy Count, “Se vuol ballare” (“If you want to dance, little Count...”), into sharp social satire and his realization of woman's inconstancy, “Aprite un po' quegli occhi” into eye-opening sadness. Soprano Heidi Stober, as wily maid Susanna, probably the smartest one in the lot, has been her own eye-opener ever since her student days at HGO. She's the ideal Susanna, pert, smart and cunning, and it's all there in her bright performance and crystalline voice. Don't mess with her, she implies; she knows just what to do to keep the men in line. Edquist's Count, though his performance was hampered by that lectern, has a solid, earthy baritone, and he'll be more justly heard when we can see him in action in Prince of Players. Director Rutherford, looking a bit tattered as the virile Count, seems to have stepped out of Donizetti's Don Pasquale, more gruff and grumpy than Mozart's polished, smug royal. As love-besotted retainer Cherubino, pining for the Countess, soprano Lauren Stouffer sparkled throughout. His/her famous serenade, “Voi, che sapete,” was phrased with tenderness and aching tone.
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As the Countess, soprano Ailyn Perez tossed off that character's dramatic arias with finesse and dark, honeyed tone. Her voice is full and rich. But what language she was singing is anyone's guess. Like Renée Fleming and, earlier, Joan Sutherland, Perez's diction is mush, but the sound is ravishing.
Of the supporting roles, bass Peixin Chen, as frustrated Doctor Bartolo, stole the show with wry buffa mugging and deep-dish voice. He's stepped right out of Rossini's Barber of Seville, Marriage's nimble precursor in all ways.
Master librettist Lorenzo da Ponte buffed out the incendiary political acid inherent in Beaumarchais's original play, banned from the stage for its attacks on the nobility, softening the theme just enough so that Austrian Emperor Joseph II, who respected Mozart but never truly understood him or his music, relented and let the opera go on. The undercurrent is still there, but Mozart glossed it with his universal Shakespearean melody, ennobling everybody. Love in all its forms – passionate, unrequited, longed for, lusted after – is now heard resplendently in the forefront. The French revolution was only three years away. Scheming Figaro might become a sans-culottes, storming the Bastille, but I bet Susanna got there first.
The Marriage of Figaro. January 24m; January 30; February 3, 5, 7m. Houston Grand Opera, Wortham Theater Center, 501 Texas. For more information, visit houstongrandopera.org or call 713-228-6737. $15-$354.