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Ensemble

Rollicking Action

Mozart's 'Marriage of Figaro' in Cleveland,
enjoyed by KELLY FERJUTZ

 

The Marriage of Figaro presented in a staged-costumed version by The Cleveland Orchestra at Severance Hall [Cleveland, Ohio, USA] this week [Monday 23 March 2009] would seem to say that character-driven operas (or plays) can be set anytime or anywhere, really, without missing a step. Or a note. Music Director Franz Welser-Möst brought his Zürich Opera production to Cleveland this week for four sold-out performances. And no wonder! This is a sizzling, sensual, sumptuous production. Being a fairly intimate, very people-oriented play, Figaro works really well as it's done here. The costumes are mid 1930s or so; not very historical, but not really modern, either.

Michael Volle as Count Almaviva, Malin Hartelius as Countess Almaviva and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni
Michael Volle as Count Almaviva, Malin Hartelius as Countess Almaviva and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni

So, okay, the stage at Severance Hall is perhaps not the most cooperative opera stage in the world, but a clever director can usually find ways to work around that, and director Timo Schlüssel did just that. The audience was cajoled into using its imagination in so clever a fashion that the usual, formal Baroque or Rococo settings were not even missed. The costumes by Marianne Glittenberg were colorful and practical, while lighting designer Christopher Shick worked small miracles, considering the lack of modern theater lighting available to him.

Granted the sets were minimal, but they conveyed their message in stylish fashion. An assortment of cardboard boxes of all sizes were placed randomly on the stage for the first two acts of the opera. These were dandy substitutes for the usual furniture or closets, providing an abundance of hiding spaces for the continually active cast that was busily dashing around, getting into or trying to get out of, trouble. The third act Garden setting was comprised of slip-covered straight chairs, set up for the wedding, while the fourth act had a small six-horse carousel placed in a shaded grove.

Martina Janková as Susanna and Michael Volle as Count Almaviva in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni
Martina Janková as Susanna and Michael Volle as Count Almaviva in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni

Of course, having even half the normal sized Cleveland Orchestra in the pit (actually on the floor in front of the stage, although there would have been room for them under it, had that been more amenable) must enhance any operatic presentation. However, in this case, the singers entirely matched the quality displayed in every other facet of the production. It was simply superb!

This Count Almaviva is a rather happy-go-lucky amateur magician, and not all of his illusions work the way they should. They provide great amusement to the other cast members as well as the audience, even if not to himself. It's a masterful portrayal by baritone Michael Volle, who certainly has the voice and appearance necessary for the role. Discovering such a comic sense of timing was the frosting on this delicious cake. In the opening of Act III, he did a turn with a huge white cloth that had covered several rows of chairs, and it was magic that really worked!

Ruben Drole as Figaro and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni
Ruben Drole as Figaro and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni

His countess was the ravishing and dignified Malin Hartelius, who was not above cutting loose in some of the more slapstick moments. Very much in love with her husband who has a roving eye, she plots with her maid Susanna (soprano Martina Janková) to make him realize the error of his ways. Whether singing solos or duets, these two women were totally believable, emotion evident with every luscious note.

Actually, the singing throughout was routinely splendid, as was the acting. Never once did you have the idea that you were watching actors doing their thing: rather, you were observing those people on stage who were living what they were singing. As it was happening! The international cast sang in Italian, with English captions by Jonathan Dean, projected overhead on a small screen, courtesy of Seattle Opera. The prompter was Philip Kelsey.

The cast of the Cleveland Orchestra's 'Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni
The cast of the Cleveland Orchestra's 'Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni

As the Count's servant, baritone Ruben Drole was at times a tad subdued, but then one cannot be hyper all the time! It is the marriage of Figaro and Susanna that drives the action of the play, along with the occasional distraction. Among these elements are the appearance of Dr Bartolo, a physician (Antonio Abete, baritone) and his former housekeeper (and perhaps more!) Marcellina, mezzo-soprano Diana Montague. She has loaned Figaro money, now she wants it back. Any excuse to delay the wedding is approved of by the Count, who really wants Susanna for himself.

In the meantime, the Count's page, Cherubino (a rather randy young man portrayed winsomely and clumsily -- on purpose! -- by mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard), irritates his master twice -- once by a report of being in love with the Countess, and next by reportedly being caught in a rendezvous with the exuberant Barbarina (soprano Rebeca Olvera), daughter of the Count's gardener Antonio (sung by baritone Reinhard Mayr), and is sent off to an army regiment in Seville. Of course, being Cherubino, he is way-laid before leaving!

Malin Hartelius as Countess Almaviva and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni
Malin Hartelius as Countess Almaviva and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni

Adding to the fun (before all the hi-jinks come to a close) are tenors Martin Zysset as the music teacher Basilio, and Andreas Winkler as Don Curzio, a judge. Members of The Cleveland Orchestra Opera Chorus as household servants were prepared by Robert Porco, director of Choruses. Mr Welser-Möst excels in large-scale productions such as this, and from his initial down-beat until he happily walked off stage after his bow with the ensembled cast, tempos were crisp with minute attention paid to the smallest details.

It does all work out well, as all the proposed marriages happen as they should, and after being convinced of the error of his ways, the Count is happily reunited with his even happier Countess. As part of the celebration the Fandango is sultry as danced by Amy Compton-Schulz and Sabatino Verlezza. The orchestra was nothing short of magnificent, and the joyous harpsichord continuo of Enrico Cacciari added greatly to the rollicking action on stage.

Malin Hartelius as Countess Almaviva, Isabel Leonard as Cherubino and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni
Malin Hartelius as Countess Almaviva, Isabel Leonard as Cherubino and Martina Janková as Susanna in 'The Marriage of Figaro' at Severance Hall. Photo © 2009 Roger Mastroianni

It's been thirty years since staged opera was presented at Severance Hall. Fortunately, we won't have to wait so long for the next occasion. Mozart's Così fan tutte is on the schedule for 2010 with Don Giovanni the following year.

Copyright © 28 March 2009 Kelly Ferjutz, Cleveland USA

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THE CLEVELAND ORCHESTRA

A MARRIAGE OF FIGARO MULTIMEDIA PRESENTATION

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