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Monday, October 18, 2010

Saturday Night: Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" at San Francisco Opera

Posted By on Mon, Oct 18, 2010 at 1:22 PM

Luca Pisaroni (Figaro) and Danielle de Niese (Susanna) with members of the chorus. - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Luca Pisaroni (Figaro) and Danielle de Niese (Susanna) with members of the chorus.
Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro 
War Memorial Opera House

October 16, 2010 

Better than: An evening with Mr. and Mrs. Party Foul, though patrons seated near orchestra seats J-5 and J-7 didn't have to choose.


Much like Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock, Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is a classic demonstration that the nobility of yore and its hangers-on were blessed with entirely too much free time. When a valet and a maid can't go ahead and tie the knot already without the emergence of dubious contracts, long-lost parents, mysterious sightings of dudes jumping out of windows, reams of duplicitous written communication, and a young man being compelled to cross-dress not once but twice -- the principal instigators of such a mess might want to consider taking up macramé or stamp-collecting, or entering psychoanalysis. Just putting that out there.


John Copley's traditional, high-spirited staging of this romp is familiar to S.F. Opera audiences -- the company also featured this production in 2006. The draw in the 2010 reprise is soprano Danielle de Niese as Susanna, Figaro's eventual better half, but Heidi Stober sings the role in the Oct. 10-22 performances.  While she may not have the star quality of de Niese, Stober was a delightful Susanna nonetheless, making a quick transition after her excellent turn as Sophie in this season's Werther.  Stober portrayed the maid at the opera's heart with vivacity and wit, combining a sparkling voice with enthusiastic but not overblown comic acting. Baritone Kostas Smoriginas was a near-ideal Figaro -- even though his voice wasn't always spot-on, he fully evoked the character's cunning charm (and could flourish without the hijinks when appropriate, as displayed by his splendid aria in the final act bemoaning the fate of cuckolded husbands).

Danielle de Niese (Susanna), Lucas Meachem (Count Almaviva) and Michèle Losier (Cherubino) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Danielle de Niese (Susanna), Lucas Meachem (Count Almaviva) and Michèle Losier (Cherubino)
As Figaro and Susanna's aristocratic employers, baritone Trevor Scheunemann and soprano Ellie Dehn were every bit as good, and no less wanting for romantic turmoil. Dehn's performance was particularly strong, making the lovelorn Countess Almaviva come alive. Her solitary, yearning aria at the start of the second act could have felt like a letdown after the riotous slapstick of the opening scenes, but instead added poignant context as she related her history of romantic neglect. She and Stober had an affectionate rapport that lent a playful joy to their scheming. Scheunemann's Count Almaviva, the target of much of this subterfuge, deployed a resonant, commanding voice to comically little practical effect. His acting perfectly channeled Dean Wormer in the final scenes of Animal House (on any of the occasions he realizes he's been duped -- again -- by his household adversaries, you could all but hear him muttering, "I hate those guys.")

Luca Pisaroni (Figaro) and Danielle de Niese (Susanna) - CORY WEAVER
  • Cory Weaver
  • Luca Pisaroni (Figaro) and Danielle de Niese (Susanna)
Mezzo-soprano Michèle Losier brought a sweetly hormone-crazed appeal to the trousers role of Cherubino, wearing both hoop skirts and military dress with aplomb. A host of variously dysfunctional supporting characters -- Catherine Cook as Marcellina, Dale Travis as Dr. Bartolo, Sara Gartland as Barbarina, and especially Greg Fedderly as Don Basilio, whose performance literally popped (think Proactiv) -- kept the loopy plot going at full throttle, and ensured that introspective moments like Dehn's opening aria remained a rarity. The cast displayed impressive cohesion (particularly given the changes in major roles; Scheunemann and Smoriginas also only appear in the final three performances) and convincing chemistry, which is key to pulling off a performance this lively and fluid. Music director Nicola Luisotti and the orchestra seemed back in form after a lackluster Aida, and handled Mozart's iconic score with flair and sensitivity. Even given Aida's pomp, spectacle, and innovation, this warhorse of a production may be this season's most solid all-around achievement so far.

Critic's Notebook

Personal bias: I may not be the most tech-savvy person in the world, but I do know that loudly declaring that "I don't know how to turn this thing off" when a phone rings in the middle of an opera doesn't help the situation a great deal. (Tired of my complaints about opera patron behavior? I'm tired of opera patrons who don't know how to behave.)

Random detail: Until Fedderly's Don Basilio did so in the first act, I'd never seen a character in an opera pop a zit. I'm hoping that will be a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

By the way: Final performance is Friday, Oct. 22, at 8 p.m. Performances run approximately 3 hours and 30 minutes. Sung in Italian, with English supertitles.  Tickets are $20-$360; call 864-3330 or visit

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Emily Hilligoss


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