LOS ANGELES — Delayed by the pandemic for almost two years, Los Angeles Opera’s new production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro received its U.S. premiere at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion on Feb. 4. Film director but opera neophyte James Gray’s colorful, burlesque-like interpretation, which premiered in Paris in 2019, was certainly worth the wait, not least because it’s always intriguing to see a different iteration of this cornerstone of the operatic repertoire.
While Mozart’s Figaro deals poignantly with raw emotions like anger, jealousy, and resentment, at the same time it’s a farcical exploration of the human comedy that remains fresh. But Figaro is also one of opera’s more intimate works, here presented at the approximately 3,156-seat Pavilion. (On opening night, it seemed like every seat was filled.)
The question for this production was whether Gray, whose day job is in the film world, would make sure the sentiments expressed in the score’s timeless arias hit home within such a large space. Though Figaro can work in big halls, reviews for the Paris premiere at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées indicated problems with the original cast fully engaging with each other and the audience.
But the director, known for sensitive films like The Immigrant — which included tenor Joseph Calleja portraying Enrico Caruso in a Puccini aria — handled the staging and singers well in this daunting space. Perhaps the difference was a stronger cast than the one in the Paris performance.
At the Chandler Pavilion, it helped that scenic designer Santo Loquasto’s sets strategically moved the characters effectively forward on stage. They also provided an acoustical wall of sorts, allowing the singers to project better in what can be a dry hall. There were walkways at stage left and right, which partly jutted out into the audience, along with a narrow shelf just below the lip of the stage.
At one point, the servant Figaro, robustly embodied by the vocally and physically agile bass-baritone Craig Colclough, is pushed onto this shelf by his jealous employer, Count Almaviva (the imposing baritone Lucas Meachem). He’s literally on a knife-edge with the thin-skinned, lecherous Count. I worried he might fall into the orchestra pit.
Gray also benefited from the presence of veteran conductor James Conlon. Together, they conveyed both the work’s prickly farce and its darker emotional undercurrents.
As the moral center of the opera, soprano Ana María Martínez’s touching Countess Almaviva portrays the neglected wife, a woman no one seems to see, especially not her philandering husband. Yet her maid, Susanna, resourcefully acted and sung by soprano Janai Brugger, becomes a co-conspirator in helping her rekindle her husband’s affections.
Martínez’s Countess shaped the Act II aria “Porgi, amor,” a searing lament to lost affection, as a private moment. She sang carefully, perhaps intending an aristocratic reserve. But her voice sounded a bit monochromatic. She was more effective when she moved closer to the audience for her third-act aria, “Dove sono,” in which her wish to change her husband’s heart generated a more natural pathos.
Mezzo-soprano Rihab Chaieb’s beguiling Cherubino, the Count’s page, often stole the show, not only with her richly characterized pining in “Voi che sapete.” She’s also funny in this trouser role as the hormonally haywire boy in love with both Susanna and the Countess. Chaieb earned a big laugh when she was coaxed into pretending to be a young woman, preening and turning to admire her bottom.
Among those offering solid support were soprano Marie McLaughlin as Marcellina, bass Kristinn Sigmundsson as Doctor Bartolo, tenor Rodell Aure Rosel as Don Basilio, and Deepa Johnny as Barbarina.
Costume designer Christian Lacroix’s often stunning clothes included the Countess’s eye-popping regal red gown in Act III and the various flower-colored dresses for the small onstage chorus in the first act.
Throughout, Conlon led the LA Opera musicians with an animated and bracing musicality that kept this Figaro flowing and shapely.
Though Gray tries mightily, perhaps it would have taken a Preston Sturges to find the right comic staging and madcap velocity for the unfolding of the last act’s mistaken identity scenes. But if the denouement felt a bit attenuated and cluttered, the company’s rendition of Mozart’s concluding hopeful paean to true love captured the enduring spirit of this great opera.