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Ionarts in Santa Fe: 'Figaro' Redux

(L to R) Keith Jameson (Basilio), Susanne Mentzer (Marcellina), Dale Travis (Bartolo), Daniel Okulitch (Count), Zachary Nelson (Figaro), Lisette Oropesa (Susanna), Susanna Phillips (Countess) in Le Nozze di Figaro, Santa Fe Opera, 2013 (photo by Ken Howard)

The final opera of the season at Santa Fe Opera had to be Mozart, and it had to be the Mozart opera most produced here, Le Nozze di Figaro. Of course, it would be no surprise for me at this point to make some lament about chestnuts -- the most striking production of Mozart I ever witnessed here was Lucio Silla, inventively staged by Jonathan Kent in 2005 -- but I will not. The overwhelming feeling I had listening to Figaro for the umpteenth time -- and perhaps this was wrapped up in nostalgia for my final night in Crosby Theater this summer, on Saturday, watching the lightning strike the desert far away -- was just how lucky we were to be the recipients of such a towering work of art, by Mozart and Da Ponte at perhaps their most ingenious. As long as the staging and casting are decent, and they were very good here, the opera can work its ineluctable magic.

This was a revival of the 2008 production by Jonathan Kent, with sets and costumes by Paul Brown, which has been overseen this time by local director Bruce Donnell. The only singer returning from the 2008 cast was the Countess of soprano Susanna Phillips, who got the big ovations due to singers who sang here as apprentices, and she earned them. The voice has opened up beautifully in the last five years, and she more than filled the house while also keeping control over that suave pianissimo for the repeat of "Dove sono." Her understanding of the role of the Countess has also blossomed, and she seemed to inhabit the character in a more mature and profound way, investing "Porgi, amor" with sadness, through the musicality of each slowly turned phrase, and the recitative leading to "Dove sono" with the bitterness of a neglected wife.

Lisette Oropesa (Susanna, as the Countess) in Le Nozze di Figaro, Santa Fe Opera, 2013 (photo by Ken Howard)

The casting was a little less starry than last time around, but it all worked. Daniel Okulitch, the towering Canadian bass-baritone who made a fine company debut in 2011 in The Last Savage, was a stitch as the Count, with the best comic timing of all the singers and a spiteful, acidic edge to the character's pompous and jealous turns and what is turning into an imposing voice. Soprano Lisette Oropesa made her company debut in the role of Susanna, with a pretty figure and a charming stage manner, if top notes that were sometimes a little on the shrill side. (Washingtonians can hear her next month in Verdi's I Masnadieri with the Washington Concert Opera.) Former apprentice Emily Fons made her official company debut as a spastic Cherubino, with an expressive and ardent tone in her two big arias. Annapolis-born baritone Zachary Nelson, an apprentice singer just last year, got a big break in being cast here as Figaro for his debut, although one had the sense of a singer whose voice and acting skills still needed honing.

Susanna Mentzer was a rather whimsical Marcellina, paired with the bluff Bartolo of Dale Travis (they made their Santa Fe debuts in the same year, 1992), while the surprise of the supporting cast was the conniving Basilio of tenor Keith Jameson, who sounded much more promising here than he had as Gastone in La Traviata. Of course, one of the purposes of mounting Figaro is to give one of your apprentices a shot at the role of Barbarina, with its gorgeous little aria, and second-year apprentice Rachel Hall acquitted herself beautifully with a charming stage presence and musically nuanced, clear soprano. First-year apprentice Adam Lau was a funny drunk as the meddling gardener, Antonio.

Other Reviews:

James M. Keller, SFO spins Mozart’s magic in ‘Le nozze di Figaro’ (Santa Fe New Mexican, June 30)
Little about the production changed since I wrote about it in 2008: it remains handsome and, most importantly, did not inhibit the communication of the story in any way. The main disappointment of the evening fell on conductor John Nelson, who has been conducting in Santa Fe since 1973. Nothing terrible happened, and there were many pretty moments that he drew out of the score, even though this was the first opera to open this summer and the musicians had not played it since July 10 -- some horn squawks were evidence of what was likely a bit of rustiness. The problem was that, far too often, Nelson allowed singers or perhaps himself to linger too long over a phrase, something that played havoc with many of the ensembles. Mozart has very often done all the work for you, laying out the ebb and flow of these ensemble scenes so that they click dramatically. Tinkering with them, especially with too much rubato, only undermines the composer's craftsmanship.

This production continues at Santa Fe Opera, through August 23.

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