SF Opera’s ‘Figaro’ Is Early American: Susanna With Fife

Michael Cavanagh’s staging moves ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ to late-18th century America. Cherubino (Serena Malfi), Figaro (Michael Sumuel), and Susanna (Jeanine DeBique) recreate a famous painting. (Photos: Cory Weaver / San Francisco Opera)
By Janos Gereben

SAN FRANCISCO – San Francisco Opera, birthplace of Francesca Zambello’s “American Ring,” is now offering an “American Nozze di Figaro” as the first of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas to be set “in the Great American house,” but don’t be alarmed. At the Oct. 11 premiere in the War Memorial Opera House, Mozart’s glorious music received a splendid performance, and the “American” theme was almost negligible.

Nicole Heaston lived in the role of the Countess. Serena Malfi was a vibrant Cherubino.

Though without resemblance to the excesses of Regieoper in Germany, opera in America has had its experimentation with “updating” works or even turning them inside out. An important milestone in that genre — with direct relevance to what did not happen in the War Memorial — was Peter Sellars’ 1980s Mozart-Da Ponte trilogy, with Così fan tutte set in a diner on Cape Cod; Don Giovanni in New York’s Spanish Harlem, cast as a Blaxploitation movie; and The Marriage of Figaro in a luxury apartment in — I kid you not — New York’s Trump Tower.

So far, SF Opera’s Mozart-da Ponte project, headed by director Michael Cavanagh, is a far more restrained affair, but the future may be different. SFO general director Matthew Shilvock explains:

“This is a three-year arc of story-telling, using the constant of `The Great American House as the place in which emotions, relationships and the very bonds of society are explored. The Marriage of Figaro begins in the time of the opera’s composition — the late 18th century and, here, in the nascent years of a new American democracy.

Erhard Rom’s neoclassical set design evokes ‘The Great American House.’

“The subsequent operas will jump forward in time but always in the same neoclassical house – Così in the 1930s when the house has become a country club amidst the anxiety of the pre-war years, and Don Giovanni in a dystopian future around 2090 when the house is crumbling, as are the bonds of society.”

The production team for the trilogy remains the same – stage direction by Cavanagh, set design by Erhard Rom, and costume design by Constance Hoffman.

Cavanagh, whose SFO credits include staging John Adams’ Nixon in China in 2012, sets the Mozart opera around the time of its composition (1786), relocating Count Almaviva’s palace from Seville to early America, stating the concept as follows:

“It’s all about new beginnings … at the heart of a post-revolutionary America, a world of vast possibility for some, but great resentment and resistance for others. The setting is a house and a nation under construction, representing a hopeful future in which people strive to express their individual freedom within a framework of responsibility to each other.”

Figaro (Michael Sumuel) and Susanna (Jeanine DeBique).

Of all that, the one obvious visible — and hilarious — manifestation was the recreation of Archibald Willard’s The Spirit of ’76 painting as Figaro is getting Cherubino ready for the army with “Non più andrai, farfallone amoroso” (You won’t go anymore, amorous butterfly) – marching with drums, the Susanna with fife, the 13-star American flag behind them. There are some New World objects and clothing around, but nothing quite as front-and-center as “Non più andrai.”

The “Great American House,” with a curious resemblance to the sheer gray surfaces of SFO’s new Wilsey Center (where Cavanagh directed a production in 2016), has some scaffolding initially, but otherwise looks well beyond being “under construction.”

A more prominent use of the theme, however, is a succession of drop curtains with architectural drawings coming and going, framing the action, saving time on scene changes. Still, as in every known use of busy scrims breaking the fourth wall, at least momentarily, the audience needs to refocus on the work repeatedly.

No such ambiguities when it came to what is essential – performance of the music, never mind whistling the sets or pondering the subtext. The music was consistent, rock-solid, gorgeous. Leading SFO’s brilliant orchestra, Henrik Nánási fully lived up to the high expectations after his acclaimed West Coast debut here with Elektra in 2017.

Marcellina (Catherine Cook) and Dr. Bartolo (James Cresswell) fume.

After an almost inevitable initial burst of excess energy in yielding to the universal temptation of “ripping into the Overture,” Nánási settled into an evening-long celebration, forward-moving without hesitation, at once elegant and powerful. Concertmaster Kay Stern and the entire orchestra shone through the nearly four-hour-long performance. Harpsichordist Bryndon Hassman and cellist Thalia Moore played the continuo parts.

The cast excelled equally in vocal performances and as singing actors, more than keeping up with Cavanagh’s high-voltage direction for more commedia than dell’arte, too busy at times, but thoroughly entertaining.

The men turned in an especially robust combination of big voices and towering presences. Debuting Hungarian baritone Levente Molnár’s Count Almaviva and returning Merola alum bass-baritone Michael Sumuel’s Figaro provided a rare realistic contrast and clash between ruler and the ruled. With all their individual and joint prominence, the two fit into a flawless ensemble performance, along with all of the cast.

Count Almaviva (Levente Molnár) is unfaithful to and with his wife (Nicole Heaston).

Welcome debuts in leading roles included soprano Jeanine De Bique from Trinidad as Susanna – a comic genius with a beautiful voice which kept gaining strength as the performance progressed – and Italian mezzo-soprano Serena Malfi as a vibrant Cherubino, whose “Non so più cosa son” and “Voi che sapete” were both of the moment and an integral part of the story.

Nicole Heaston’s appealing performance as the Countess Almaviva came under challenging circumstances, the debuting soprano replacing the long-scheduled Jennifer Davis shortly before the premiere when the latter withdrew. From a subdued “Porgi, amor” to a passionate “Dove sono i bei momenti,” Heaston lived in the role musically and dramatically.

Catherine Cook’s Marcellina, Greg Fedderly’s Don Basilio, James Creswell’s Doctor Bartolo, and Adler Fellow Natalie Image’s Barbarina (in the bright cavatina of “L’ho perduta”) all enhanced the performance.

The history of Le nozze in San Francisco is most impressive. On the SFO performance archives, you will find dozens of productions, hundreds of performances since the 1936 premiere. Casts with the likes of Elisabeth Rethberg, Bidú Sayão, Risë Stevens, Ezio Pinza, and John Brownlee were presented over the years; Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa Della Casa, and Pilar Lorengar returned repeatedly in the role of the Countess; Erich Leinsdorf and William Steinberg were among conductors in the War Memorial.

And, in a remarkably quirky bit of opera history, Renata Tebaldi made her role debut as the Countess with the company on tour in Fresno, and that became the perfect opera quiz item of “the only Mozart role she ever performed in the U.S.”

Remaining performances are on Oct. 19, 22, 25, 27, and Nov. 1. For tickets and information, go here.

Janos Gereben has been girding the globe from his native Budapest and his first newspaper job at age 15, to the New York Herald-Tribune, to the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, back to Europe on an Alicia Patterson Fellowship, and then to San Francisco, lately settling down with SF Classical Voice (SFCV.org) and SF Examiner.



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