Mozart’s appealing music in "The Marriage of Figaro" eclipses his revolutionary politics. It is entirely possible, in the 21st century, to leave the theater humming the tunes without thinking about how inflammatory the work was when it debuted in 1786, three years before the French Revolution.
The story comes from the works of Mozart’s older contemporary, playwright Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Beaumarchais’ "Barber of Seville," staged in 1775 and his "Marriage of Figaro," which debuted in 1784, helped let loose the ideas that toppled the French monarchy. His heroes were servants far smarter than the nobles who they served.
The plot of the opera dissolves the lines of social class. Count Almaviva pursues Susanna, his wife’s maid. Susanna and her betrothed Figaro, manservant to the count, join with the countess to trap her philandering husband. Cherubino, the adolescent page to the count, is in love with the countess. Figaro turns out to have an aristocratic background.
Hidden identities add a zaniness to the story. Figaro turns out to be the kidnapped son of the elderly Marcellina, who holds a contract obligating him to marry her. Disguises result in the Count making an assignation with his own wife, and in Cherubino appearing among a group of peasant women.
The opera adds froth to the arguments in favor of the underprivileged. Working with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart clothed his advocacy of the lower classes in a sly and delicious tunefulness.
I saw the New Jersey Opera Theater (NJOT) performance of "The Marriage of Figaro" at a dress rehearsal on Wednesday, August 10, in McCarter’s Berlind Theater. Glitches were remarkably absent. An exceptional unity and lightness shone through the production. And a sense of ensemble infused both musicians and designers, resulting in a sprightly, effervescent, funny presentation. The emerging artists of NJOT and their savvy design team worked together to create a theater piece that matched the ebullience of Mozart’s music.
Unleashed imagination and finicky attention to detail were mates in the intimate production. Conductor Michael Recchiutti led this uncut version of "Figaro" at a brisk pace. His fluid, yet crisply choreographed gestures shaped the sound of the 12 winds and 13 strings that made up the orchestra. With almost equal wind and string forces, Recchiutti allowed the winds to be heard as if they were playing chamber music. The keyboard support came from what Recchiutti calls a "state of the art" Yamaha Clavinova with three different harpsichord settings. Recchiutti was happy to be freed from a harpsichord likely to need tuning every 20 minutes.
The singers turned in a polished performance. Since this was a dress rehearsal with vocalists saving their voices, it was impossible to assess all of their vocal qualities. In any case, their sense of teamwork, of timing, and of intonation were admirable. The vocal ensembles were a model of teamwork.
Susanna (Elizabeth Sutton) was outstanding. By turns she was perky, playful, enterprising, passionate, and graceful. She was animated at every moment, coming alive, for example with a backward glance as she exited the stage. She made a winsome couple with the love-hungry adolescent Cherubino, a trouser role (Kristen Leich). Their Act Two duet was as tightly coordinated as the work of a couple of trapeze artists.
Figaro (Hyung Ju Cheon) was self-confident in challenging the dominance of the Count (Anton Belov), who was satirized as a difficult person seeking personal revenge. The dignified Countess (Amy Butterworth) was relieved to be finally reconciled with her philandering husband.
A simple stage set, designed by Hannah Price and lit by Barry Steele, came alive with light and color. Four functioning doors were set against a blank background whose illumination varied. Costume designer Patricia Hibbert’s color palette contributed to the airiness of the production, with pastels dominating. The costumes also contributed also to the humor of the production. For example, Marcellina (Ana Amengual) was made bloated in a flowing lavender garment; her consort, Bartolo (Matthew Curran), wore a ludicrously long waistcoat and jacket. With towering wigs, designed by Steven Horak (who also designed the make-up), both were hilariously larger than life.
Director David Grabarkewitz kept the production lively by deploying performers in ever-shifting patterns on stage. During vocal ensembles the singers moved rather than remaining static.
"The Marriage of Figaro," which opened to a sold-out audience on Friday, August 12, was the first entry in NJOT’s tightly-focused second season, whose anchor is the work of Beaumarchais. It will be performed once again on Saturday, August 20.
Le Nozze di Figaro, Saturday, August 20, 8 p.m., New Jersey Opera Theater, Berlind Theater at McCarter, Princeton. "The Marriage of Figaro" by Mozart is performed in Italian with English surtitles. $35 and $45. 609-258-2787.