“The Marriage of Figaro” gets a new look with the production opening Friday at Houston Grand Opera – and HGO regulars likely will welcome the change.
For every staging since 1988, right up to the last one in 2011, HGO revived the production designed by Carl Friedrich Oberle and originally directed by Göran Järvefelt. Inspired by the Drottningholm Court Theatre of 18th-century Stockholm, the production was created to accommodate all three of Mozart’s masterworks with libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte; so between “Figaro,” “Così fan tutte” and “Don Giovanni,” it saw more than its share of action. Although admired for its spare look, classic elegance and subtle pale-on-pale color scheme, the production had begun to feel a shade overfamiliar.
The new “Figaro,” an HGO co-production with Glyndebourne Festival Opera, where it premiered in 2012, is different as it can be from HGO’s previous “Figaro.”
Director Michael Grandage, who won a Tony for John Logan’s “Red,” has set the action in Franco’s Spain of the late 1960s/early ’70s – a choice reflected in the costumes and sets by Christopher Oram. Compared to HGO’s “Figaro” of recent years, this production aims for a bolder, more colorful and modern visual dimension.
In the view of the Sunday Times, the production “affirms Mozart’s most beloved masterpiece as both of its time and perennially modern, Grandage oiling the comic mechanisms of Da Ponte’s libretto with a master technician’s hands.”
HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers notes that this is the first time in the company’s 61-year history that HGO has presented “Figaro” with anything other than 18th century sets and costumes.
“Searching for contemporary relevance in this feudal story, Michael’s inventive mind asked the question that must be asked of any ‘Figaro’ production: ‘What is the opera about?'” Summers says. “Beaumarchais’s 1784 play and Da Ponte’s libretto, though set in then-contemporary Seville, were satires on all aristocratic hierarchies. ‘Figaro’ is also, most importantly, a melancholy and touching allegory on aging . . .
Director Ian Rutherford, who has staged two previous re-mountings of the Glyndebourne “Figaro,” is recreating Grandage’s production for HGO.
“HGO’s involvement as co-producer shows the company’s awareness and skill,” Rutherford says. “Patrick felt it was time for a new look at the opera. In many ways, certainly in visual style, this is exactly the opposite of the production HGO audiences have been seeing for the past 25 years. It’s a sexy and exciting take, with colorful sets for each act and gorgeous costumes.”
Rutherford says that presenting the opera’s story in this framework, with the sensibility of a time closer to our own, helps foster a better understanding of the characters and makes their problems more relatable for today’s audiences. He says his work as director is made easier by the “exemplary” cast HGO has assembled, led by Adam Plachetka (as Figaro), Heidi Stober (Susanna), Joshua Hopkins (Count Almaviva), Ailyn Pérez (the Countess) and Lauren Snouffer (Cherubino).
“Ailyn, for example, can play so many more colors in her role, more than any Countess I’ve worked with – and sing it stunningly,” Rutherford says. “With a cast of this caliber, you capitalize on their impulses. That guides the direction, as you move and mold them, as the consequences of their actions lead from one scene to the next. It strengthens the emotional integrity of the piece. It’s why, even though this is the third time I’ve remounted this production, the whole feel is different from any other time I’ve recreated it.”
Houston Chronicle | Everett Evans
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Image: Dave Rossman