This half-century’s most revelatory stagings of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro— by Giorgio Strehler (from Paris), Luchino Visconti (Rome), Herbert Graf (the old Met), Peter Hall (Chicago), John Copley (New York City Opera), and Peter Sellars (Purchase, New York)— have found a near-rival in Jonathan Miller’s new Met production. More to the musical point, however, is that conductor James Levine cooks the work of his top-of-the-world cast and orchestra into a feast of what I can only oxymoronically call no-frills nuance.
But back to Miller for a bit. When he’s not scandalizing opera’s conservative majority by moving Rigoletto to 1950s Bleecker Street or Tosca to Mussolini’s Rome, the good doctor (yes, he’s an M.D.,) can deal understandingly with composers’ and librettists’ original concepts. Of course, when a near-disastrous testing of lovers’ fidelity is on the bill, as in Mozart’s Così fan tutte, Miller has enough science in his soul to put not only the female subjects but also their experimenting lovers on lab slides, as he did so suspensefully in St. Louis in 1982. Figaro, however, is so chock-full of wit, pathos, and love both sanctioned and illicit that there’s no room for
scientific experiments. A Figaro director must be exclusively a humanist, dealing with real emotional conflicts (no heroes, no villains), and Miller seems to have recognized that and brought all of his cast except one into agreement.
Given such world-class singers as Bryn Terfel (Figaro), Renée Fleming (Countess Almaviva), Dwayne Croft (Count), Susanne Mentzer (Cherubino), and a few others, Miller’s (and Levine’s) building of such a smooth-running show is a real achievement. And given Cecilia Bartoli’s explosively sassy and disruptive Susanna (Figaro’s eventual bride), achievement becomes miracle. While her colleagues conscientiously play convincing people with conflicting agendas, Bartoli plays Susanna not as written— a lover with an occasional spark of mischief— but as a clown with a momentary glint of love.
Terfel’s Figaro is still building on and refining the quick mood changes and vocal elegance (those stylewise variants in reprises!) familiar by now from the Met’s previous, ratty production. Fleming still spins out the repeat of the principal “Dove sono” melody on a pianissimo thread unapproached since the prime of Eleanor Steber. She also engoldens her whole role with an invincible sense of vocal color. And her final entrance of forgiveness to her would-be unfaithful husband radiantly personifies Mozart’s most sublime stage moment. (James Acheson’s white costume and Mark McCullough’s starry lights enhance the effect.) Fleming lacks only a little of what Bartoli’s Susanna has too much of— the conspiratorial mischief that reminds you of the countess’s prenuptial life as Rosina in The Barber of Seville. Fleming, in fact, showed that very sparkiness in last season’s Lyric Opera of Chicago revival of Peter Hall’s Figaro. One affecting Miller touch, though, was to increase the cast by two Almaviva children, one a toddler played by Fleming’s own
older daughter, the other an infant played by a doll.
By the time you read this, Bartoli and Fleming will have left the Figaro run, but their replacements are no Mozartian slouches. Also, four first-cast performances were taped for a PBS simulcast next season, shows in which Bartoli substituted for Susanna’s two regular arias two more virtuosic but dramatically irrelevant ones Mozart wrote for librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s mistress in a 1789 revival (three years down the line). Don’t mourn missing the substitutes at the Met; they show up occasionally at concerts.
Earlier in the Met season came what author Robert Ludlum could correctly call the Wilson Vindication. Remember what happened last winter when director-designer Robert Wilson took a bow at his Met-debut, Lohengrin, and was hit by a barrage of booing? Well, he has unexpectedly dared the fates again, and this time out, he got nothing but applause and cheers. The Met audience finally caught up with a 30-year-old theater method still alive and kicking. Last season’s severely stylized movement, minimal hints of settings, and such devices as momentarily illluminating only faces or hands— all these were retained. Yet the audience took it in stride, and many seemed pleased by the elegant plainness.
It was also impossible to ignore the musical magnificence of the evening. Levine conducted Wagner’s most sumptuously romantic score up to a radiance startling even from such an orchestra and chorus as his, and the cast, partly new, hit new heights. Ben Heppner brought even more lyricism and ringing impact to the title role, and his new Elsa was Karita Mattila, who not only sang shiningly but managed, as her predecessor hadn’t, to gently but firmly pierce Wilson’s screen of ritual with her special theatrical truth. Deborah Polaski had toned down last season’s campiness as the villainous Ortrud, Falk Struckmann was a powerful new Telramund, and René Pape, the young but world-class Wagnerian bass, was every inch and more the obligatory king.