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"Le nozze di Figaro" at the COC

A dose of good humour to rescue this "folle journée" of lust and jealousy

WORDS BY DR. JANE ISABELLE FORNER | Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts

JAN 27, 2023 | COMMUNITY

From the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, 2023 - Photo by Michael Cooper
Luca Pisaroni as Figaro (centre) and Andrea Carroll as Susanna in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, 2023 - Photo by Michael Cooper

I have always thought of Claus Guth’s Figaro as a shadow performance, as what would result if Mozart’s wicked doppelgänger had written an opera. It’s not just the gloomy colour palette or the looming, faded walls, but a pervasive aura: dark, brooding, sexually charged, and occasionally actually threatening, it gives us an aristocratic household in decay, gripped by conflict and emotional turmoil.

The COC’s take on the production, opening the winter season on Friday, succeeded in infusing what I have always found to be a very clever, but simply far too dreary and angst-filled Figaro with a welcome dose of merriment and self-conscious parody. Perhaps a celebratory atmosphere was in the air for the occasion of Mozart’s 267th birthday – fitting indeed, for Guth’s production was originally created for the Salzburg Festspiele in honour of the composer’s 250th year in 2006. To this revival – under the direction of Marcelo Buscaino – the opening night audience responded in kind (indeed some in my row were worryingly hysterical at times), appreciative of the quality acting and genuine comedy to which the ensemble had evidently dedicated much attention. The quality of the performances was noticeably high in unfailing attention to comedic timing, blending with carefully handled moments of stillness and pathos alongside scenes of deeper conflict.

Luca Pisaroni was a delightfully witty Figaro, offering a strong, rich vocal performance throughout, and charming in his portrayal as affable and slightly haphazard, and contributed many moments of comic relief. Memorable especially was his bemused wander across the stage holding a dead raven (perhaps a crow?) at arm’s length while continuing the ongoing dialogue. Gordon Bintner’s Count Almaviva brought enough of the requisite authoritarian bully persona to dominate the stage when necessary, but also leaned well into the signature desperate histrionics of this production. We saw a man out of control, acting blindly, irrationally, and often pathetically, but he avoided – mercifully, in my opinion – overexaggerated theatrics. I could perhaps have done without the axe to the Countess’s throat, but fault there hardly lies with the singer. If a slightly bigger sound would have been welcomed, Bintner overall offered a commanding performance. Lauren Fagan impressed as the suffering Countess, always projecting a firm control of line and a warm, lush tone. I did think that perhaps she might have had one less thing to worry about – on top of the philandering husband, a house in disarray, and the feverish amorous attentions of a page-boy – if she put her arms inside the enormous fur coat she sported during (the beautifully sung) “Porgi, amor.” It did, however, furnish multiple opportunities to make a great deal of very dramatic, sudden gestures (and for Susanna, played adroitly by Andrea Carroll, to get good practice in scarpering across the stage to readjust the coat on her ladyship’s shoulders).

Under the tightly controlled musical direction of Harry Bicket, the impetus to slow the tempi down to an unbearable crawl, as Nikolaus Harnoncourt did, notoriously, once upon a time in Salzburg, was thankfully shunned. There was enough rubato throughout to allow space for languishing – memorably in the concluding phrases of “Deh vieni, non tardar” and “Dove sono,” for which Carroll and Fagan respectively received deservedly rapturous applause. The intentions of singers and orchestra were not always quite in sync, however, with several noticeable moments where those on stage seemed to be pushing for more flexibility in the line, causing brief disjunctions. For the most part, however, the vitality of the performance was matched on both levels, with Bicket bringing out varied contrasts in orchestral colour. Especially dynamic was what I can only describe as a pervasive, frenzied sexual energy onstage – again, a hallmark of this production, but one to which Friday’s cast brought comic and self-effacing vigour, never taking things too seriously, particularly in the almost erotic threesome between the Countess, Susanna, and Cherubino in Act II as they play dress-up, with Emily Fons singing nimbly and capably throughout as the wayward and lovesick young lad.

Although I still can’t get on board with some of the more overly-stylised choreography and the persistent slow-motion sequences, some of the production’s more astute symbolic gestures are emphasised well in a lighter, parodic mode. Bartolo’s wheelchair (and later, cane) neatly captures the character’s struggle between his self-perception as a shrewd, important, stately intellectual, and the reality of his ineffectual impotence, sung and acted skilfully by Robert Pomakov. As Antonio, Doug MacNaughton struck a curiously Elizabethan note in black breeches, boots, and pointed grey beard, entertaining throughout – I particularly enjoyed his hammed-up dismissal during the lengthy Act II finale, where, like an inebriated Batman, he spread his black cloak, casting a large shadow and flitting away to mutter his plant pot-related complaints alone. Completing the Tim Burton-esque arrangement of maudlin-looking gentlemen in grey and black, Michael Colvin was a deliciously wicked Don Basilio, part mafioso enforcer, part slimy go-between, and Jacques Arsenault made an entertaining appearance as Don Curzio (or was it Doctor Strangelove?).

Special mention must also go to Uli Kirsch, who, in the added role of the silent, mischievous, all-seeing Cherubim-Cupid, managed both a bout of flawless unicycling, and a spell sitting astride the Count’s shoulders without falling (props also to the latter’s core strength, and ability to multitask basso coloratura and significant physical exertion). I couldn’t find out who exactly Figaro’s body double was, hanging upside down during a passage of Act IV, but at least none of the singers were actually required to perform upside down; the frequency with which one or all of the ensemble onstage at a given moment had to sing whilst lying supine on the floor, the staircase, or on top of (or, indeed, underneath) someone else, certainly deserves added congratulations.

Whether it’s an eternal weakness for rising major sixths or the grumpy musicologist in me, I’m not sure I can quite forgive Friday’s audience for erupting into laughter just as the Count began his stirring plea, “Contessa, perdono.” We can all think of a time when an over-enthusiastic dilettante, who simply insists on clapping or shouting “Bravo!” the very second the music has ended, has ruptured the stillness, the brief silence after a particularly poignant aria or symphony – in this case, the moment of almost religious supplication that initiates the gorgeous final ensemble passage before the finale – when we feel suspended in time, and we sit there, desperately hoping we can hold on to the feeling for just a few seconds more before the demands of concert etiquette take over. The house quickly seemed to realise that this passage was not, in fact, supposed to be funny, and subsequently quietened. After the somnolent heap of singers awakened for the lieto fine, in the acidic glow of purple and blue lighting, staring solemnly forward, the final tableau comes across far less like the ensemble is about to run off to festiggiar’, and rather more like they are the last survivors on Earth after an apocalyptic catastrophe, preparing to board the final spacecraft.

If this production will be unlikely to become a favourite of mine, as striking as it is, the COC’s approach injected a dose of good humour into the bleakness, the capable comic performances reminding us of the fundamental principle of Figaro: that we act foolishly and erratically out of lust and jealousy. It is, after all, a folle journée (à la Beaumarchais) that is supposed to be the frustrating, messy, and flirty kind of crazy, not the follia of the clinically depressed and psychologically tormented. After all, we have plenty of other operas to turn to for that (Salome opens Friday, February 3).