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Santa Fe Preview: Le Nozze di Figaro

Le Nozze di Figaro:
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R. Jacobs

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Salzburg Festival

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Covent Garden (DVD)

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Neue Mozart-Ausgabe | Mozart Werke
The Santa Fe Opera programming formula usually includes a modern masterpiece (Billy Budd) and a premiere (Adriana Mater), combined with a less familiar opera from an accepted composer (Radamisto) and two more popular chestnuts to round out the season. One of the chestnuts this year is Le Nozze di Figaro, which is the most often staged Mozart opera at Santa Fe, having been seen here as recently as 2000 (the opera is one of the Top Ten performed in America). In fact, the company has performed one Mozart opera every season since 1990, as well as most seasons before that, largely the big four (for example, Così fan tutte in 2007 and Magic Flute in 2006) but with a few excursions into the less familiar, like Lucio Silla in 2005.

Figaro, premiered in Vienna in 1786, was the beginning of a legendary collaboration between Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, who created the libretto from a very current "hit" play by Pierre Beaumarchais, La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, from 1784. Mozart's version enjoyed a successful production at the Burgtheater, as well as a revival in Prague and another later in Vienna: Mozart composed new arias for the new Susanna in 1789, replacing "Venite inginocchiatevi" with "Un moto di gioia" and "Deh vieni" with "Al desio di chi t'adora." Haydn, who wrote in a letter that he heard Figaro in his dreams, even tried, unsuccessfully, to mount the opera at Eszterháza. Its popularity has endured through the last century or so, too, and new CD and DVD versions continue to hit the market at a dizzying rate.

The opera and its characters have been the subject of an incredible amount of analysis, musicological and otherwise. Søren Kierkegaard, fascinated with the psychological and mythological depth of Mozart's Don Giovanni, famously identified the adolescent page, Cherubino, as the young adult precursor of Don Giovanni. The matched pair of the Countess and Susanna are close conspirators across rigidly controlled class lines, an interchangeability that is reinforced by their actual role reversal in the final act. As Kristi Brown-Montesano puts it in a new book on the women in Mozart's operas, "In a genre that thrives on catfights and romantic rivalries between women, the Countess and Susanna display a remarkable solidarity, more so than any other two female characters in Mozart's operas. Le nozze di Figaro turns on this rapport, the strength of which ultimately generates the happy denouement to the folle journée (pp. 155-56)."

The Countess's entrance in the opera is one of the most memorable. As Brown-Montesano puts it, "We meet Mozart's Countess in the privacy of her bedroom, far away from Figaro's schemes and the Count's salacious advances toward Susanna. The scene stands out from almost everything that has come before it (p. 169)." That stunning first aria, "Porgi, amor," is marked Larghetto, a slow tempo that stalls the opera in a sort of stasis. In the words of Brown-Montesano, "Time is suspended, and during the fourteen bars of formal orchestral introduction -- the longest in the opera, particularly given the tempo -- we are encouraged to gaze at the Countess as a physical presence. In the words of Allanbrook, the Countess does not so much make an entrance as she is 'discovered' (pp. 169-70)."

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Kristi Brown-Montesano, Understanding the Women of Mozart's Operas
There is a palpably mystical or religious quality to the Countess's music, a feeling that is confirmed by a similarity, pointed out by Daniel Heartz, between "Porgi, amor" and Mozart's soprano solo in the Agnus Dei movement of his Missa Solemnis (K. 337), and between her later aria "Dove sono" and the Agnus Dei of the Coronation Mass (K. 317). To use Brown-Montesano's words again, "Mantled with beatific lyricism, the Countess supports -- especially in her arias -- the ideal of woman's moral power, passively exerted through affective private expression, devotion to others, and self-sacrifice (p. 171)." It is that spiritual quality that appears to triumph at the opera's conclusion, when the Count is forced to acknowledge his sin and ask the Countess's forgiveness.

Although that moment is so striking, the conclusion is ultimately hollow: "What is missing, of course, is a true uniting of Count and Countess in song. Pardon is asked and given (they may even draw closer together physically as the crowd moves in on their public reconciliation), but there is still separation. [...] The Count's memory of his repentance will fade in a month or two, and the Countess will again be crying in her bedroom (pp. 177-78)." Indeed, in the next Beaumarchais play, little has changed.

The casting of Figaro offers some of the most exciting singers on the roster this season, with Luca Pisaroni (so impressive in Radamisto) as Figaro, Mariusz Kwiecień as the Count, and Isabel Leonard as Cherubino. In particular, Susanna Phillips will surely make the Countess as she should be, a lovely and still-young woman, rather than the more matronly type who is sometimes cast. The new production promises interesting ideas from director Jonathan Kent, who was responsible for the beautiful and intriguing staging of The Tempest two years ago.

Performances of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at Santa Fe remain on July 28 (this evening) and August 2, 5, 9, 18, and 22.

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