A good production of Le Nozze di Figaro that doesn’t get in the way of its music can demonstrate to its audience this work’s surprising modernity, even rooted as it is in the late 18th century.
It’s Mozart who speaks to us most clearly from his 1786 vantage point, writing a kind of operatic music that lives and breathes with its characters, a music that mirrors their manic mood changes and which in itself becomes another actor in the drama.
Palm Beach Opera ended its mainstage season Sunday afternoon with Figaro, bringing it back after a sunny 2009 production that remains among my favorites from this company. The three-day run the opera had here last weekend was an actual new production, co-created for regional opera companies to share: Palm Beach, Lyric Opera of Kansas City, San Diego Opera and Opera Philadelphia.
Directed by the British veteran Stephen Lawless, with an attractive, clever set by Leslie Travers that played up the architectural details of one of those big aristocratic country houses that today have become tourist attractions for Downton Abbey fans, this was a funny, well-sung Figaro that ended the season in warm fashion.
As Figaro himself, the Croatian bass-baritone Marko Mimica brought a powerful, dark voice to the character, almost as if a Verdi specialist were trying out some earlier literature. His approach to the character was relatively stern, with a forceful “Se vuol ballare” and none of the impish scheming common to other interpretations. It was slightly unusual in that respect, but nevertheless effective.
As Susanna, the Chicago soprano Janai Brugger, who has an Ilia in Idomeneo coming up for that city’s Lyric Opera, floated out a light, lovely, pretty voice in the Kathleen Battle mode that is ideally suited for this role. In the performance Sunday afternoon at the Kravis Center for a modest but appreciative audience, Brugger repeatedly pulled back on her volume, perhaps to keep her voice in shape for the whole work, but it diminished her impact somewhat, which is too bad because she was delightful to watch on stage.
Caitlin Lynch, a soprano from Detroit, was Countess Almaviva, a role she has sung many times, including at the Metropolitan Opera. Lynch has a strong, large instrument that was impressive in her two big slow arias, “Porgi, amor,” and “Dove sono.” In both, her admirable breath control helped her support those long lines, and her high A in Dove sono, which is more treacherous than it looks on paper, was reached with confidence. She was a little cool in her acting, which is a bit at odds with this character’s emotional upheaval.
Texas baritone David Adam Moore was a very good Count Almaviva, making his every entrance speak of unquestioned authority, wielded with ease. His “Hai già vinta la causa” was suitably fierce, spitting out “Perfidi!” and imbuing the aria with real outrage. He has a pleasant, firm voice, not huge but agile and inviting.
Cherubino was sung winningly by a house favorite, the California mezzo Irene Roberts, who was in the company’s Young Artists Program a decade ago and now is a stalwart of a major European house, the Deutsche Oper Berlin. Roberts has a big, nd dark, powerful mezzo, and she showed Sunday afternoon a remarkably polished reading of this music: Every phrase was buffed to a high sheen, every note placed just so. She is a splendid actress, too, who was entirely believable as a goofy boy in way over his head who nevertheless knows he can get away with things. She was a joy to watch, and the audience loved her.
The expert, veteran mezzo Elizabeth Bishop was a very fine Marcellina whose elation at finding her long-lost son was palpable. The Colombian bass-baritone Valeriano Lanchas was the quintessential Dr. Bartolo, with a very large, resonant voice that is excellent for this repertory but that would be well worth hearing in dramatic roles.
Boston tenor Matthew DiBattista was quite a good Don Basilio, with a distinctive, lovely voice that also would be worth enjoying at greater length. Bass Andrew Simpson, in his final Young Artist appearance with the company, was a remarkably good Antonio, not at all befuddled or clueless, but wily and sharp. Chelsea Bonagura was a fine Barbarina, and Maria Brea and Kelsey Robertson, who had a brief duet as the bridesmaids, sang attractively, though without much power.
Greg Ritchey’s small chorus did its job well, and it was a pleasure to see them some spilling out of the set’s large doors in full Founding Fathers regalia as designed by Travers, whose costumes were terrific.
The orchestra was directed masterfully by the Italian conductor Antonino Fogliani, who has led two Donizetti operas for the company in previous seasons. The musicians played beautifully, with admirable ensemble and flexibility, and Fogliani kept the opera moving forward even in its slower spots. The overture was a shade too fast, with things sounding like they were going to come off the rails, but the orchestra pulled it off, and they gave a radiant reading of this sublime score.
This was a fine if not exceptional Figaro; Lawless’s vision was a little too controlled, and some of its singers a bit too cautious, to give it the sense of chaos that makes the redemptive quality of the “Contessa, perdono” moment in the final minutes so poignant and special in contrast. But the production is a beauty too look at, and it will travel well. Hats off to the four companies for bringing it to us, and giving Mozart and Da Ponte another round of renewal.
The Palm Beach Opera bids farewell to its Young Artists tonight with a Liederabend concert at the Harriet Himmel Theatre in CityPlace. The recital begins at 6:30 p.m.; tickets are $25. For more information, call 833-7888 or visit pbopera.org.