Johanni van Oostrum as Countess Almaviva, Richard Ollarsaba as Figaro, Angela Mortellaro as Susanna, Jacques Imbrailo as Count Almaviva, Andres Acosta as Don Basilio, Nadia Fayad as Marcellina and Matt Boehler as Doctor Bartolo in Minnesota Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Photo by Dan Norman.
Minnesota Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro opened on Saturday at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts. The production features a set dripping in Old World grandeur, a talented vocal cast, and an amped-up sense of boudoir comedy.
It’s not often that Twin Cities audiences get to see this opera classic so much – just last year, Angels & Demons Entertainment did a small-scale, site-specific version of it at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul. While the music may be fundamentally the same, these are radically different – and differently sized versions of the same opera. Whereas the Angels & Demons production crammed the audience next to the action, Minnesota Opera’s amplifies the distance – the better to take in the grandeur of the scenery and brimming orchestral sound.
This production design (courtesy of the Lyric Opera of Kansas City) is big on visual impact and recalls the massive interior rooms of the great 18th-century European palaces. It is unfortunately not the best thing for the show’s acoustics – in-between the set materials and the curtains, many singers’ voices are swallowed up as they ventured upstage. Another aesthetic issue is an irregular sense of realism: at different times, like when a number of plaster medallions are thrown at the floor, there is an unclear sense of reality and symbolism – elements that are far more distracting than beneficial.
When it comes to boudoir sex comedy, this Figaro soars – on opening night, the dashes under beds, hiding in closets, and sneaking around corners never failed to bring chuckles. While it certainly has some social commentary, The Marriage of Figaro is at its heart a fun piece, and Stephen Lawless’s directorial vision seizes upon that humor. A few running gags add to the humor – for fun, count the times that hats, shoes, and socks come off – as does the earnestness of the performances.
One of the standout stars of this Figaro is South African soprano Johanni van Oostrum and her lithe and alluring voice. It is easy to picture van Oostrum’s Countess as the grown-up Rosina from The Barber of Seville, and the doe-eyed glances between her and Adriana Zabala’s excellent Cherubino are one of the production’s most reliable sources of laughter. Angela Mortellaro’s Susanna is sweet and astute, although the duet with Marcellina (Nadia Fayad) lacked some of its normal biting humor – possibly because the staging made it unclear what was actually happening. (This was another area where the inner/outer world divisions were not entirely clear.)
All told, it’s hard to think of a better introduction to opera than an old-fashioned, straightforward production of The Marriage of Figaro. A few oddities aside, that is mostly what this production is – and there’s nothing at all wrong with that. Come for the sex comedy and beautiful music, and stay to hear Jacques Imbrailo’s latest melodious plans for seduction and revenge. Just make sure to grab some caffeine during intermission – this Figaro trims a little here and there, but clocks in at three and a quarter hours.
Minnesota Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro plays through November 19 at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, MN.