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Wedded Bliss

Baltimore Opera’s Marriage of Figaro is a Match Made in Heaven

THE SOPRANOS: (from left) Susan Patterson and Korliss Uecker compare notes in Figaro

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 3/16/2005

At the Lyric Opera House through March 20.

By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte

The Marriage of Figaro is almost always referred to as a Mozart opera, almost never as a Mozart-da Ponte opera. This is standard operating procedure in the opera world, where the composer gets all the attention and the librettist is the odd man out. Yet if opera is truly a blend of melody and dialogue, harmony and narrative, the creator of the words plays as important a role as the creator of the music. It’s no coincidence, after all, that Mozart’s two greatest operas, the comic Marriage of Figaro and the dramatic Don Giovanni, both boasted librettos by Lorenzo da Ponte. Every Mozart opera boasts a miraculous fountain of melodies, but only in these two are those tunes married to words worthy of the music’s invention.

Bernard Uzan, who directs the current production of Figaro for the Baltimore Opera Company, understands this. He has cast performers who can not only sing beautifully but who can also act (even if they would never pass a Center Stage audition, this is a cast of fabulous actors by opera standards). Moreover, Uzan has pressed them to deliver their lines crisply and cleanly without an excess of embellishment and at a snappy pace. Conductor Daniel Beckwith reinforces Uzan’s vision by getting the orchestra to play just as cleanly, just as briskly. As a result, da Ponte’s brilliant comic dialogue, as well as his interludes of romantic melancholy, come through as they seldom have before. Far from diminishing Mozart’s music, this attention to the words gives the arias and the ensemble pieces an intensifying focus.

Many opera stars resemble statues onstage, but bass singer Robert Gierlach is so full of restless energy that it seems he could portray anything but a statue. Gierlach is Figaro, a valet to Count Almaviva in 18th-century Seville, Spain. As the show begins, he is merrily installing a new bed in his new bedroom in anticipation of his impending wedding to Susanna, the Countess’ chambermaid. Susanna, though, is unhappy about their new quarters, which are so close to the lecherous Count. Korliss Uecker, the bubbly soprano playing Susanna, even invents some physical comedy that creates a bawdy double entendre when she sings about the “ding dong” of the Count’s bell. Her concerns send Figaro into paroxysms of fury and then, just as quickly, into the cunning hatching of a plot to embarrass the Count in front of his wife. The big-voiced Gierlach makes these sudden shifts seem natural in a man of sudden but brief enthusiasms.

The Countess is also aware of her husband’s wandering eye, and she sings a romantic lament at the beginning of Act 2 and another in the middle of Act 3. The latter aria, “Dove sono,” asks the unanswerable question, “Why do I still love someone who is so unfaithful?” Soprano Susan Patterson provides the luxurious tone, unfussy phrasing and understated power that brings out all the poignancy of the gorgeous melody and the heartbreaking lyrics. It’s the musical high point of a wonderfully musical production.

The farce becomes ever more complicated, and ever more comic, as characters break promises and change identities, even genders. Along the way, the Count and the lawyer/doctor Bartolo are exposed as self-serving hypocrites. Such sentiments led French King Louis XVI to ban Pierre de Beaumarchais’ 1778 play Le Mariage de Figaro (a sequel to his earlier play Le Barbier de Seville, which Rossini turned into a famous opera). The play was finally presented in 1784 (and the Mozart and da Ponte opera premiered just two years later), but the French Revolution was on the way. Director Uzan alludes to this by using giant replicas of the Declaration des Droits de L’Homme and the American Declaration of Independence as backdrops to his minimalist set.

The Baltimore Opera Company has a well-deserved reputation for inconsistency; it presents as many fiascos as triumphs. But this is one of the good ones. Indeed, it’s one of the best productions the company has ever mounted.

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