By Nancy Malitz
NEW YORK — The curtain was already up as patrons paraded to their seats at the Metropolitan Opera House on opening night of the 2014-15 season on Sept. 22. A domestic castle’s complex of circular rooms defined by soaring walls and light-diffusing lattice-work appeared imposing, yet somehow vulnerable. Darkly forbidding and yet, as the stage began to revolve, deliciously yielding of secrets within.
It was the setting for Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, brilliantly and expansively led by music director James Levine, about marital discord in the Seville household of Count Almaviva, whose wandering eye and unchecked pursuit of amorous privilege turns his wife to despair and his staff to wily subterfuge. But the look of Rob Howell’s stage set also resonated with recent events at the beleaguered Met, where staffers and management have endured public contract disputes in a culture that would rather keep its affairs backstage.
Tuxedoed first-nighters entering Lincoln Plaza faced an angry, rebuking throng objecting to the Met’s plan to put on, in October, John Adams’s 1991 opera The Death of Klinghoffer. The work is based on the 1985 hijacking of the cruise ship Achille Lauro and subsequent murder of wheelchair-bound Jewish American passenger Leon Klinghoffer.
But once inside the Met gates, attention turned to what, for many, is a favorite opera. In Figaro, Mozart’s generous-hearted lyric embrace of egregious human frailty is unsurpassed. A joyful maestro, an impeccably calibrated orchestra, and a young and rambunctious cast (with some opening-night wobbles and jitters) brought British director Richard Eyre’s uninhibited production to life, never funnier than in complex scenes requiring attention to detail.
Eyre’s is a topsy-turvy interpretation in which everyone has sex on the brain, “downstairs” culture has the definite edge, and women freely enjoy the upper hand. Well some, anyway. Once the turntable starts to move and the overture is underway, we glimpse the new normal in Almaviva’s realm, since his marriage bed is no longer a novelty. A topless maid grabs her threads and scurries off as Almaviva strolls toward other comely distractions.
The likelihood is strong that this attractive cast of singing actors will be a success in HD when the Saturday, Oct. 18, matinee performance is broadcast live to 68 countries, beginning at 12:55 p.m. Eastern. (In most locales, there will be an encore presentation soon thereafter as well — in the United States on Wednesday evenings immediately following the live transmission.)
Swedish baritone Peter Mattei, as the virile and almost comically arrogant Count, is peerless at befuddlement on the large stage, with an arsenal of double-takes, explosive bursts, sly moves, and self-centered rue that reads very well on his face, no matter how far away.
But there is one singer who may actually benefit from the close-up. The patrician reserve of soprano Amanda Majeski, as the lonely Countess, is distancing in the big house. At 29, she was making her Met debut on opening night, and she is possessed of a Met-sized voice. If there were early nerves in “Porgi, amor,” she endowed “Dove sono” with longing and heartbreak in a performance of touching promise. Overall, though, it would have been great to be able to zoom in for more intimacy.
As for the cavorting Figaro and his betrothed Susanna, a pair of smart singers — bass Ildar Abdrazakov and soprano Marlis Petersen — played them as spunky sweethearts looking forward to some fun in the sack. Abdrazakov’s big voice matched a burly manner that exuded more affability than quick wit. Petersen’s “Deh vieni, non tardar” was a luscious mix of innocence and seduction.
My new favorite Cherubino, mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard, was all unrestrained boyishness that gave way to the stumbling awe of adolescent feelings in “Voi che sapete.” It was a stunning moment, and you could tell that Levine was having a great time, too. He brought down the da capo volume to such a whisper that this Cherubino was able to savor, as if entranced in a prayer, the possibility that what he felt in his heart might be love. Levine elicited such inspired bursts from the cast and orchestra all night; it’s impossible to overstate the importance of his renewed vigor at the helm.
The ensemble numbers were a special treat, their effect spontaneous, although one sensed the hand of a legit theater director who won’t let a scene go until its moments seem true, and a conductor of exactly the same mind.
Petersen’s Susanna was perfectly charming as she sang “Venite, inginocchiatevi” while she dressed up Cherubino up as a girl and the Countess watched. The extended sequence at the end of Act II, in which Cherubino avoids capture by leaping from the Countess’s bedroom to the garden, requiring an ever expanding series of outrageous cover-up lies, was a riot.
One purpose of the Andalusian manor’s tall towers became apparent in the opera’s final act, the scene of the night-time trap that the Countess and Susanna, posing as each other, will spring on the Count. At this point the lattice-work atop the towers becomes transformed, through lighting, into the supernatural grove in which Almaviva’s waywardness will be exposed. The once-predatory splendor of his many-roomed castle becomes a wealth of nervous nooks and crannies for the various romantic entanglements of the story to sort themselves out. In most Figaro productions, this scene happens under confusing circumstances, but Eyre’s got a talent for sifting clarity from complexity. He could direct traffic at Trafalgar Square.
Nancy Malitz is the publisher of Chicago On the Aisle, the founding music critic at USA Today and a former cultural columnist for The Detroit News. She has written about the arts for a variety of national publications.