One of the greatest masterpieces of opera

Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva, Lisette Oropesa as Susanna, and Amanda Majeski as Countess Almaviva. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.
Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva, Lisette Oropesa as Susanna, and Amanda Majeski as Countess Almaviva. Photo by Scott Suchman for WNO.

Le Nozze Di Figaro

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte

Le Nozze Di Figaro, one of the greatest operas, has been performed by every opera house spanning over two hundred and thirty years, and is a standard work for training singers, directors, conductors and designers.  Its familiarity can be problematic, yet as one of the greatest masterpieces of opera, it is appropriate that it continues to be presented. It is a wise choice for opening the Washington National Opera’s season at the Kennedy Center.

Mozart, who lived only 36 years, continues to move audiences with his remarkable melodic skill, brilliant orchestration, and creative variations of classical music forms. His librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, collaborated with him on three of the greatest operas: Le Nozze Di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte, easily making Da Ponte one of the greatest Italian poets.

Da Ponte was from the area of Venice which is now celebrating ( or commemorating) 350 years since the creation of the Venetian Ghetto. One of the events this past summer included a presentation of Shakespeare’s ‘A Merchant of Venice’ with participation of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Justice Ginsburg commented that in her education, Merchant of Venice was forbidden due to its stereotypical Jewish character, Shylock.

Da Ponte, born Emanuele Conegliano, in Ceneda, in the Republic of Venice, was Jewish by birth. He converted to Catholicism, along with his family when his father, a widower, married a 16 year old Catholic girl. It was required by the Church for this marriage to take place that the father and his children (Lorenzo being 14) convert to Catholicism. This was a standard demand made upon Jews mirroring Shakespeare’s conclusion to his problematic play.  Lorenzo Da Ponte had an interesting life becoming a Catholic priest at age 24 but shortly thereafter, he had a mistress and two sons, and was leading a licentious life in the companionship of Casanova as they travelled though Europe. Eventually he founded the Italian Department at Columbia University and was instrumental in bringing ltalian opera to the United States.

Mozart and Da Ponte were opposites, yet together, they represent opera’s most successful artistic collaboration. They lived in a time when the poem, the poetry of the libretto was written first and then set to music. This was no difficulty for Mozart who tosses off one beautiful aria after another to these texts with great ease. It is in the ensembles that Mozart’s music reaches a level that few composers have ever attained. It is as if the composer takes the poems in the ensembles, and uses the lyrics as an additional instrument, in symphony after symphony after symphony to stunning effect.

There is a unifying theme in this work which resonates at this time of year: Asking for forgiveness, and granting forgiveness. This confession of the heart so much a part of this work is set to three hours of music, and succeeds in touching the hearts of its listeners.

In a pre-concert lecture with the director of the Washington National Opera, Francesca Zambello and the insightful director of the opera, Peter Kazaras, Zambello pointed out that in this 18th century world, no one could ‘unfriend’ as they can do today on Facebook. When characters were unfaithful, jealous, overly humorous, or gave birth through affairs or harassment, they had nowhere to run. They confessed and had to reconcile in the manner of the day. This was not lost on the two Catholic Priests seated behind me, and it was not lost on me. I would speculate that when Da Ponte went to ‘confession’ there was a line up of clergy, those who wished to hear his confession.

This opera requires the best vocal ensemble and matching voices — a vocal casting which matches timbre, temperament, as well as appearance and stature. The buffa elements were fully exploited to the point of making them a little less Mozartian and more like Rossini. Nevertheless, the laughter in the audience was genuine and frequent, knowing they delighted in the situations created. Beaumarchais, the French playwright upon whose work Da Ponte based his libretto, wrote three works focused on these characters, and had to balance the need for audience appeal against any affront to the King and Nobility of France.

The point of this work is it represents the power of the pen in words and music. It gives you words you may not wish to hear, in music which is magical. It is a way of laughing at the injustice of the class system and its abuse, as well as having an audience identify with the brilliance of Susanna (Lisette Oropesa), Figaro (Ryan McKinny) and the Countess (Amanda Majeski) who outwit the Count (Joshua Hopkins). Figaro even stuns both the Countess and Susanna in his ability to think quickly (and not so quickly).

The class elements are beautifully underlined in the music, by the song/aria of Figaro’s music, and his dancing master metaphor in Se Vuol Balare (If you will dance my Count – I’ll play the guitar…and all of your schemes I’ll turn inside out) (by Da Ponte), indicating that he will have the Count dance to his instruction. As the Enlightenment and Age of Revolution enfolds, Jewish listeners among many others identified with Figaro, who despite his lack of status, is in demand, is everywhere and who might have been described as having the ability to turn things around (’Yiddishe Kopf’).

The Count and Countess have the more extended arias and expression, with Susanna finally having her say in the 4th act. All of this is mirrored in this great art work. Bright Costumes by Myung Hee Cho were based on the paintings of Goya a perfect compliment to the music, and the work is set in classical Spain (sets by Benoit Dugardyn). The lighting, hair and wigs, makeup, dance and movement, contributed greatly to the outstanding achievement.

The conductor, James Gaffigan, making his WNO debut, demonstrated total control and led an inspired performance, well paced and energetic, while never ignoring the demands on the singers pacing and breath. There was not one moment when the orchestra and singers were out of sync, well maybe one.

The opera began about ten minutes late which deserves a complaint to the mayor for the lack of traffic management downtown. This caused a rushed performance of the overture, while 400 ticket holders arrived late, an unhappy situation for any performance no less the opening night of WNO.

This production is a delight, and compared favorably with the best European companies. What it did not have was one singer who was so famous who could compare with Ezio Pinza, or Cesare Siepi, or Anna Netrebko or Diana Damrau, yet so much the better, since this excellent cast which has great beauty in their singing and appearance, and much promise, had the best ensemble work, memorable in its vocal shading of this magnificent score.

Yes, other composers have full opera orchestras which drown you in sound, drama and production. This is a work crafted to draw you into the sound, the verse, the aria and ensemble. I would gladly look forward to seeing such a production again. Mozart and Da Ponte have given us a three hour work of entertainment which is the pinnacle of artistic achievement and which glories in the human ability to laugh and sing, while touching the heart. This is opera at its greatest, and Washington National Opera did justice to it in presenting a memorable performance experience. It is still possible to see it as it runs until next Sunday afternoon October 2, 2016, (2:00 PM) in the Kennedy Center Opera House.




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