quirk of personal scheduling provided a rare opportunity to see, in
two American cities, the two great operatic adaptations of the Beaumarchais
plays involving the sly trickery of Figaro, Almaviva, Rosina and the
gang. Mozart, of course, wrote Le Nozze di Figaro years before
Rossini dashed off Il Barbiere di Siviglia. But the Rossini opera
tells the story of how the count and countess meet and marry. Mozart
deals with them and their household years later.
singing was at a premium in both productions, but fortunately a strength
of both casts was clear, strong characterization. Seeing the two operas
on successive evenings, even in sharply different settings, added for
me some extra layers of meaning. Thanks in no small part to the smart
direction of Sir Peter Hall for the Chicago Nozze and Johannes
Schaaf for the San Francisco Barbiere, we could see the characters
evolve right before our eyes.
nice to be reminded, for example, that the sad, womanly Countess who
melts our hearts with "Porgi amor" in Nozze is the same lively
Rosina who promises "cento trappole" (a hundred tricks) to foil Dr.
Bartolo in Barbiere. When, in Nozze, Figaro tells her
and Susanna of his plan to dress up Cherubino as a girl to fool the
Count, the Countess turns to Susanna and asks if she thinks the plan
will work. We know she knows something about deceit herself, having
just seen her younger self spring a few whoppers in the previous night's
entertainment. And when they go along with the plan, and all the complications
that ensue, we can recognize flashes of that same intelligence.
two composers draw the same characters musically with distinctive strokes.
The Countess in Nozze, for example, has pure musical lines of
regal elegance, tinged with an emotional vulnerability that gives her
unexpected depth. She has two of the greatest soprano arias Mozart ever
wrote -- "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono" -- and gets the best line of the
whole opera in the Act IV finale, when she forgives the humbled Count.
Sung in Chicago by the soprano Ruth Ann Swenson, her voice like double
cream, the arias were heartbreaking and the lines in the finale guaranteed
to bring a tear. Rossini gives his Rosina killer coloratura to demonstrate
her cleverness and she never really slows down. She gets the show-stopping
aria "Una voce poco fa" and the first go at the whirlwind duet, "Dunque,
io son," and becomes the musical catalyst in several key ensembles.
In San Francisco, the American mezzo-soprano Helene Schneiderman gave
a performance long on intelligence but shy in the surefooted fioratura
and rich sound to bring Rosina fully to life.
Nozze was a traditional production, set in a lavish, if very
brown, 18th century villa. San Francisco's Barbiere moved the
action to the late 20th century. A two-story house, all in white, dominated
the stage, rotating to let us see into the various rooms, which framed
the characters' interactions in clever ways. Figaro arrives on a shiny
red Vespa, his barber kit in a wicker basket attached to the back, singing
his entrance aria "Largo al factotum" while shaving the beard of his
passenger, who emerges as a model-pretty young woman in a green cocktail
dress. Or is she a transvestite? Either way it's a clever sight gag,
one of several in a high-spirited production.
by the tall, handsome young American baritone Nathan Gunn, this Figaro
had the right swagger if not quite the vocal presence and coloratura
to give all the musical treats in Rossini's score their due. In Chicago,
another young American baritone, Wayne Tigges, sung in place of Ildebrando
d'Arcangelo, sidelined with bronchitis. Tigges has a strong, clear bass-baritone
sound, but not yet the stage presence to portray Mozart's older, smarter
if less independent Figaro. It was as if Masseto, Zerlina's bumpkin
betrothed from Don Giovanni, had gotten Figaro's job at Almaviva's Villa.
roles change voice types between Barbiere and Nozze, an
indication of what kind of character the composers were trying to achieve.
The most notable change is the Count. Rossini's Almaviva, a youthful
tenor, pretends to test Rosina's love by posing as a penniless student,
but he's not shy about revealing his noble rank to get out of one fix
after another. His music is always stylish but always on the surface.
Mozart's Count, a mature baritone, is usually portrayed as an awkward
bumbler, but his music infuses his character with a noble sheen, and
when he begs the Countess' forgiveness in the finale, we easily buy
his sincerity -- at least in the moment. In Chicago, Swedish baritone
Peter Mattei made an ideal counterpart to Swenson's Countess, singing
with marvelous control and sufficient power. In San Francisco, tenor
Yann Beuron gave Rossini's Almaviva the right bright, plangent sound,
even if his coloratura got a mite smeary.
a basso buffo in Rossini, is also a bass in Mozart, where he has acquired
a female companion (Marcellina) and is revealed to be Figaro's father
(and Marcellina his mother). He is pretty much the same character, marvelously
sung by Paul Plishka in San Francisco and Andrea Silvestrelli in Chicago,
although we don't get much of an inkling in Mozart that the Barbiere
plot hinged on his desire to marry Rosina, his ward. The music teacher
(and cohort of Bartolo) Basilio is a basso buffo in Rossini, powerfully
sung in San Francisco by Philip Ens, but a character tenor in Mozart,
given shape by Ryland Davies. Ens rocked the house with his signature
aria, "La callunia." Davies made less of an impression in Chicago.
important characters in Nozze who are not in Barbiere
are Susanna, whose pending nuptials with Figaro are referred to in the
opera's title, and Cherubino, the teenage swain who is constantly tormenting
really drives the plot, being the smartest character in a cast full
of clever minds. In the hands of a great lyric soprano with stage presence,
Susanna steals the show, from her "dong dong's" in her first duet with
Figaro to the show-stopper aria of Act IV, "Deh vieni non tarder." Isabel
Bayrakdarian, who sang Rosina when Chicago did Barbiere in the
2001-2002 season, has the stage presence to bring Susanna to life, but
she suffers vocally in a cast with Swenson. If Swenson's voice is a
rich Montrachet, Bayrakdarian's is a nice village Puligny. (Swenson
has also sung both Rosina and Susanna. Any further comparisons would
be unfair to Bayrakdarian and Schneiderman.)
hormones raging, pursues every female in sight, eligible or not. Audaciously,
he pines the most for the Countess, even flirting with her shamelessly
in one scene, but he also has eyes for Susanna and his counterpart in
age, Barbarina. Mozart infuses his music with impulsiveness and urgency,
especially in the Act I aria "Non si più" and the Act II serenade,
"Voi che sapete." Lauren McNeese, an American mezzo who came up through
the ranks at Chicago Lyric, was making her role debut in these performances.
Her portrayal is a bit on the vanilla side, but she has a light, high
voice for a mezzo and could grow into the role.
the end, the characters emerged more vividly in San Francisco's Barbiere,
with solid singing across the board and stylish conducting by Stefan
Soltesz attaining all the liveliness and grace one could ask for. The
Chicago Nozze had more star quality from the breathtaking beauty
of the performances from Swenson and Mattei, which overcame uneven casting
in the other roles.