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Opera review: Los Angeles Opera revives 'Marriage of Figaro'

September 27, 2010 |  4:00 pm
Marriage of Figaro L.A. Opera

Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” has been called the perfect opera. David Cairns, in his keen recent study, “Mozart and His Operas,” goes out on a limb: “For the first time music has found the means of embodying the interplay of living people." No opera by Mozart or anyone else, the British scholar further contends, is so "in total harmony with itself.” 

More a company of creative chaos, Los Angeles Opera has never seemed quite in harmony with itself. I like that about L.A. Opera, but it can also mean messy Mozart. A proposed Mozart cycle under a single director (possibly Achim Freyer) never came to fruition. Its most recent “Figaro” production (vintage 2004) wound up in the last-minute hands of Ian Judge, who has more than once come to the rescue at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Marriage of Figaro Los Angeles Opera That production -- with a bit of Franco’s Spain, a bit of '50s Hollywood, a bit of vulgar tomfoolery and a few real fireworks at the end -- returned two years later for the farewell performance of music director Kent Nagano. Good singing and refined conducting carried the day.

Now Judge's “Figaro” has returned with an outstanding international cast, the return of the fly and Pablo Neruda (a.k.a. Plácido Domingo) in the pit. The fly at Sunday’s matinee performance was the Figaro of Daniel Okulitch, the young Canadian baritone who created the role of the title role of Howard Shore’s forgettable “The Fly” for L.A. Opera two years ago, which Domingo also conducted.

That Domingo led a brisk “Figaro” Sunday should hardly surprise. He’s a busy man. Thursday night he opened the season starring in Daniel Catán’s “Il Postino” in the role of Neruda. Two days before that he extended his contract as L.A. Opera general director until 2013. Although Domingo announced Monday that he will step down from the other company he heads, Washington National Opera, at the end of the season, he still might want to look in on its new “Salome” (opening Oct. 7 in D.C.) if he has a free evening while appearing here in back-to-back operas.

But what is surprising is that the first “Figaro” Domingo has conducted flowed as well as it did, especially given that Mozart has never been central to his career. He may not have lavished attention on all the magic of the score, serving more as facilitator of drama than guide, and letting Judge insert more silliness than I recalled from the earlier casts. But his phrasing always felt right, the touch was light and elegant, and the orchestra played smoothly.

This cast is new to the production, and the three leading women in are also making their company debuts. Women always matter more than men in Mozart, and that was true Sunday.

Marriage of Figaro Los Angeles Opera Marlis Petersen, a sterling soprano, proved a cool, smart, centered, captivating, intimidating Susanna, a servant whom others served. Martina Serafin came across as an unusually vulnerable Countess, self-involved, lounging in bed on the phone, drinking Champagne to greet the sun and bemoaning her philandering husband. Her two sad arias had a magnificent expressive fullness.

Renata Pokupic’s Cherubino, the young scamp enamored of all women, shot erotic darts. The mezzo from Croatia passes for boyish, but she is also feminine, and her flirtations with both Susanna and the Countess seemed more than a little loaded.

The well-known Danish baritone, Bo Skovhus, is also new the company. His performance as the Count at Salzburg four years ago, in a controversially serious and sexually suggestive production by Claus Guth, brilliantly revealed the inherent insecurity as the essence of sexual attraction. After recently watching the DVD of the Salzburg production, I was at first disheartened to see the Count make his entrance as a cartoon wolf with long hair, a bathrobe opened, and his tongue all but hanging out.

Later, uniformed in Fascist garb, working the phones at his desk, this Count is a leader of threatening pomp whose defenses won’t hold. His wife and his subjects are smarter than he is, and Skovhus found an inner humanity that previous Counts in this production have not had.

Okulitch’s Figaro was more a student of Susanna and human nature than schemer. Like the Count, he could come across as a bit absurd when trying to assert his masculinity in the presence of strong women. But the baritone is ever lively on stage and a stylish singer.

A flamboyant Marcellina (Ronnita Nicole Miller), a grandiose Bartolo (Alessandro Guerzoni), a sleazy Basilio (Christopher Gillett), a perky Barbarina (Valentina Fleer), a stuttering Don Curzio (Daniel Montenegro) and a drunken Antonio (Philip Cokorinos) were used for laughs.  They got them.

We need now a more sexually mature and politically alert “Figaro” production that suits our troubled times. For instance, Basilio’s aria, which was cut, is introduced with a warning about nobility: “they give you ninety for a hundred and they are in the right!”

But if the “Figaro” we do have is not perfect, the singers nevertheless go deep. And the essential interplay is between living people and living music is maintained. 

-- Mark Swed

"Marriage of Figaro." Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave. 7:30 p.m. Sept. 30 and Oct. 6 and  14; 2 p.m. Oct. 3, 10 and Oct. 17. $20 - $270. (213) 972-8001 or www.laopera.com. Running time: 3 hours, 15 minutes.

Photos: Top, Bo Skovhus as the Count, with Marlis Petersen as Susanna. Bottom, Martina Serafin as the Countess. Photographs by Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times.

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