The Princeton Festival’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” is exhilarating. The farce follows a labyrinth-like route to a happy ending, leaving no loose ends, and depositing handful of hummable tunes in the ears of listeners. Musically, dramatically, and visually, this is a top-notch production.
Once again, Princeton Festival director and production conductor Richard Tang Yuk and stage director Steven LaCosse have organized a performance that delighted a responsive audience at opening night on Saturday, June 13. Vocalists with an outstanding gift for comedy brought the production to reality. Additional performances take place Sunday, June 21 and Sunday, June 28, at 3 p.m.
McCarter’s Matthews Theater is an ideal venue for this production. The size of the theater’s stage, and its seating capacity, provide an intimacy that would be out of the question in a larger space. The production is in Italian, with English titles. The three-hour performance consists of four acts with two intermissions.
The opera is based on a politically radical play that challenged prevailing views of society in the run-up to the French Revolution. Author Pierre de Beaumarchais battled his way through six encounters with the censors before its premiere in Paris in 1784. Freemason Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart in Vienna, also a challenger of the existing political order, working with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte for the first time, brought a musical version of the play to the stage two years after the Parisian premiere and creating a work that focuses more on the amorous than the political.
LaCosse has set the opera in the 18th century, when the piece was written. At the time it was subversive to portray servants and masters as equals, and to depict women as equal to men. Today, when questions of class and gender are still with us, the 18th century setting emphasizes the universality of the issues.
Conductor Tang Yuk chooses a brisk and precise opening that declares the fast-paced no-nonsense performance. He finds hidden melodies in the overture and makes them audible. A glance at Tang Yuk later in the performance finds him moving serenely, calmly in control of the music while chaos takes place on stage.
Settling into this opera — one of the funniest vehicles in western civilization — is easy. In a series of duets in Act One, Mozart presents most of the main characters in the drama. By the end of the act he has sketched samples of the oncoming comic mishaps and the complicated confusion that make this opera At the McCarter performance, each duet combines musical accomplishment and nuance while assistant conductor Gregory Geehern, at the harpsichord, subtly punctuates the forward movement of their performance.
From the beginning it is clear that Jonathan Lasch’s Figaro is a presence that can command the world and that Haeran Hong’s winsome Susanna, Figaro’s soon to be bride, is his intellectual equal. Lasch and Hong bring musical magic to their conversation.
The couple is nimble physically, and throughout the production, the gymnastic antics of the younger characters contribute to its vitality. The older generation of characters, contrastingly, moves with pride and formality.
Yet it is the affecting musical performances that exhilarates. Cherubino the Count’s page, an adolescent boy in love with women in general and particularly enchanted by the Countess, is a trousers role played by a mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoe Velasco, whose active vibrato underlines the young man’s passion. Remarkably, she is able to move like a boy when Cherubino becomes a soldier. Surprisingly, when Susanna and the Countess dress Cherubino in girl’s clothing, Velasco moves like a boy wearing clothes of the opposite sex.
As the womanizing Count who has his eyes on Susanna, Sean Anderson — the tallest member of the company — vocally exudes privilege and authority. In an Act Three solo, he winningly conveys sincerity and evokes sympathy as he attempts to work through the complications he confronts and it is not his fault that he is an aristocrat. And Katherine Whyte — as the neglected Countess — is a solid presence.
A comical counterpart to the lightheartedness of Susanna and Figaro involves an older couple: Marcellina (Kathryn Krasovec), a woman in love with Figaro, and Bartolo (Richard Lugo), a lawyer looking to settle a score with him. Lugo’s delivery of the patter aria “La Vendetta” is memorable.
Making up the design team are Peter Dean Beck, set design; Norman Coates, lighting design; Marie Miller, costume manager; Jason Allen, wig and make-up design; and Cristina Marte, choreographer.
“The Marriage of Figaro” lends itself to re-interpretations, director LaCosse says. He directs the piece for the sixth time at the Princeton Festival. About this year’s version of the masterpiece, he says, “It’s rare that you have an inspired cast where everyone is ready to collaborate in order to forge an effective production.”
The Marriage of Figaro, Princeton Festival, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, Princeton. Sundays, June 21 and 28, 3 p.m. $30 to $140. 609-258-2787 or princetonfestival.org.