‘Le Nozze’ Annulled: Mozart’s Perfect Opera Gets A Rough Makeover

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller as the Countess and Andrè Schuen as the Count in the new production of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ at the Vienna State Opera. (Photos courtesy of the Vienna State Opera)

VIENNA — A new production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the Vienna State Opera was billed as a vehicle for young singers ideally suited to the roles, set into motion by one of today’s most sought-after directors. The final product does not live up to either promise. The cast is not homogeneous in terms of style and diction, while the campy humor of the inarguably talented Barrie Kosky proves mismatched with Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto.

Ying Fang as Susanna and Peter Kellner as Figaro.

The situation was exacerbated at the fourth performance March 17, when the soprano Ying Fang — who had made her stage debut at the house as Susanna — became vocally incapacitated, leaving her to meekly lip-sync while ensemble member Maria Nazarova sang from the pit (the blog Slipped Disc cited a “vocal cord hemorrhage,” while a spokesperson declined to confirm details on the grounds of “data protection”). That the performance was filmed for national television (a camera in the balcony made a loud noise during the overture) only added to the embarrassment.

Le Nozze di Figaro, as program notes inform us, is the most-performed work in the history of the house. The opera premiered in Vienna in 1786 (although at the nearby Burgtheater), and the local pride in all things Mozart should not be underestimated. As such, the new production — part of a Da Ponte-Mozart trilogy under Kosky’s direction that began with Don Giovanni last season — is an important calling card for the current administration.

Sadly, the house orchestra is the evening’s main attraction, although not without a few reservations. Philippe Jordan maintained a high-energy performance, skillfully shaping the musicians’ rich tone while also bringing a welcome light-footedness. Yet there was an occasional tendency to rush the end of phrases, and the orchestra was not always in sync with the singers. Was a tense atmosphere or the Susanna situation to blame?

A scene from the Vienna State Opera production of ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’

Nevertheless, there was no doubt that the orchestra has this music in its bones — from rhythms foreshadowing the French revolution to the swooning eroticism that underlies the score — and Jordan never allowed the reins to slacken. While there was an inevitable acoustical imbalance given that Nazarova stood below the rest of the singers, she carried the leading female role with a bell-like but plush tone and generally assured phrasing. If the key fourth-act aria “Deh vieni non tardar” suffered at times from awkward phrasing, her stamina and grace were a triumph under the circumstances.

Onstage, ensemble member Andrè Schuen nearly stole the show as the Count. His deep, seductive baritone brought a refreshing dose of authenticity to the trying evening. An authoritative delivery of the third-act aria, “Hai già vinta la causa,” made the listener excited to hear him develop in the future. Fellow ensemble member Patricia Nolz also fit the bill as his page Cherubino, bringing excellent diction and nuance to the yearning aria “Voi che sapete.”

Josh Lovell (Don Basilio), Stephanie Houtzeel (Marcellina), Andrè Schuen (Count), and Stefan Cerny (Dr. Bartolo).

Hanna-Elisabeth Müller (an ideal Eva in the recent production of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger) brings a mature enough voice to the role of the Countess, but her Italian vowels could be more open, and the aria “Porgi amor” at times lacked tenderness. As Figaro, Peter Kellner hammed it up while giving an uneven vocal performance that could have benefited from more legato, not to mention more refined Italian. He warmed up by the aria “Non più andrai,” however, and improved over the course of the evening.

Josh Lovell brought a ringing tenor and subtle comic timing to the role of Don Basilio (although his diction, alas, was also not ideal). Stephanie Houtzeel was a brash Marcellina, while Stefan Cerny brought a gravelly tone to Dr. Bartolo. Johanna Wallroth was a charming Barbarina, giving a moving rendition of the aria “L’ho perduta me meschina.”

While melancholy numbers are left to speak for themselves, Kosky’s slapstick humor often falls flat. The first act is set against stark white, neo-classical walls (sets by Rufus Didwiszus) that would be quite suitable if the character development were more convincing. The second act, which casts the Countess’ chamber as a splendid palace room, takes a turn for the better.

The second half of the opera brings interpolations that call into question the director’s affection for the opera. The serene female peasants’ chorus “Ricevete, o padroncina” is interrupted with a grunting “cor” (heart) from one of the singers, and the fourth act is introduced by the characters scampering across the stage in search of Barbarina. When the curtain opens to a platform with trapdoors that is meant to represent the garden in which Susanna and the Countess exchange identities, the long pauses between lines emerge as an awkward attempt to augment the drama in a work that was already perfected two and a half centuries ago.

The Count (Andrè Schuen, second from right) asks the Countess (Hanna-Elisabeth Müller, far right) for forgiveness at the end of ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’