Review: A Marriage of Figaro with Musical Taste, Fashion Faux Pas

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Did the wardrobe department fail to clear out in time?

Racks of dresses sat in the middle of the stage while costumed mannequins of various sorts hung in mid air at the Lincoln Center's Rose Theater. Wigs were tossed around the stage. Singers stripped down to their undies while changing clothes during the overture. 

Welcome to the latest installment of Ivan Fischer's semi-staged productions at the Mostly Mozart Festival, this one being The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart's tale of class warfare as soon-to-be-wed servants fend off a lecherous master, presented something like Broadway Encores! at City Center with action taking place on platforms positioned within the onstage orchestra.

Clothes make the man – or define their class – which was the central lens through which conductor/stage director Fischer revealed the opera. Hasn't that always been obvious? The presence of 18th-century garb showed where the opera came from, though some characters wore modern business suits. We've seen that before, too. But by the end, this often-heard opera's performance standard had taken a nice step forward – which is saying a lot – but not for those most visible reasons.

Fischer's intermittent stage directing career is a deeply important turning point for him: In the program notes, he discusses the cumulative impact of music and gesture. And that impact was definitely there in the musical performance, suggesting that process of his staging was more important than what was ultimately seen, which felt like artistic scaffolding.

While Fischer has certain ideas about what he wants us to think, he too easily forgets what we like to look at. Costume racks aren't a worthy central scenic element – the case with Acts I and II. Characters of different classes were positioned on separate platforms, though that meant intimate exchanges were senselessly sung across a certain physical distance. The mechanics of the performance were ever present. Rarely was your sense of belief suspended. Theatrically, you were observing the opera rather than living in it.

But there were serious pluses: The carefully selected cast (clean, medium-weight voices, many with good lieder credentials) were allowed to intermingle with the Budapest Festival Orchestra. Conductor Fischer had no grand, opening bow, but casually appeared among the musicians, quieted down the audience and started the overture, during which opera characters seemed to leap out of the orchestra.

As the opera coalesced on three small platforms, singers and instrumentalists were always in close proximity, yielding such a wonderful ensemble performance that Fischer had much less to do as a conductor, giving cues from his seat and standing up to do the conductor thing mainly in complex passages. Remarkably little messiness was heard, especially considering that this was not steady-tempo Mozart. Often, every character – and all of their emotional shades – had their own tempo, all used with taste and subtlety with respect to the opera's structure. Every recitative, aria and ensemble built masterfully. Even Act IV, with its sublime music but murky narrative, emerged with unusual clarity.

Singers all seemed unusually comfortable, vocally and theatrically, Hanno Muller-Brachmann and Laura Tatulescu being an extremely winning Figaro and Susanna. Rachel Frenkel's Cherubino threatened to get lost amid the highly-charged performances of Roman Trekel and Miah Persson as the Count and Countess. Trekel found remarkable variations on his character’s rage; Persson projected an emotional kalaidoscope and pitch-perfect vocalism – a combination rarely heard since the great Gundula Janowitz. 

The minor comic roles of Marcellina and Bartolo had luxury casting with Ann Murray and Andrew Shore. In other words, this Figaro did what festival presentations should: Deliver new insights that one happily takes into the regular season. But I wouldn’t want to see Mozart presented this way on a regular basis.