Review: ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ at San Francisco Opera (***)

by Charles Kruger

Serena Malfi delivers a flawless SF Opera debut as Cherubino in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Photo Credit: Cory Weaver/SF Opera
Reviewed by a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle.

“The Marriage of Figaro” is as perfect an example of comic opera as can be imagined. From its first performance in Vienna on the 1st of May, 1786, it has been recognized as a work of unparalleled genius. And why not? It’s Mozart at his very best, based on a marvelously farcical play by the revolutionary French writer Pierre Beaumarchais and transformed into a delightful libretto by Mozart’s collaborator Lorenzo Da Ponte.

In its day, it was not without controversy. In a time of revolutions, any play that made fun of nobility and challenged the special rights of the likes of counts was likely to raise eyebrows in any European court. Da Ponte had to soften some of the revolutionary ideas Beaumarchais had implied before the Emperor Joseph would permit the opera to go forward.

In the present production, the creative team has relocated the action of the play to Colonial America, at the time of the American Revolution, in an effort to bring those elements forward, with only partial success. The revolutionary sentiments “in the air” do add a certain edge to the Count’s assertion of feudal rights to deflower his servant Figaro’s bride on her wedding night, but the association is muddy. For example, it is odd that the young Cherubino, sent off to the army by the Count for flirting with the Countess, finds himself marching with the Americans rather than the British, which would seem more appropriate. But this is a minor matter. One should keep in mind a famous remark by British director Nicholas Hytner that “you could set ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ on the moon, as long as the doors are in the right place.”

What matters most is Mozart’s music and how it is sung. All of the performers (several making San Francisco debuts) are highly skilled but mostly less than thrilling. They do the job, but, for the most part, do not soar. This is a musically adequate, but not outstanding, rendition. This is not to say it is without highlights, and they shall be noted forthwith.

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nánási, known to SF audiences from his 2017-2018 SF debut with Strauss’s “Elektra,” is superbly authoritative. His conducting is joyful and muscular, qualities which he communicates to the SF Opera orchestra so that they perform at their considerable best. And I must note that he sports one of the more notable examples of “conductor hair” ever to flounce with a baton. At the performance I attended, the orchestra’s performance of the overture received one of the strongest ovations of the day, well deserved.

As for the singers, Michael Samuel as Figaro sings more than adequately but truly shines for his comedic physicality and remarkable dancing. This entire production is danced almost as much as it is sung, and Samuel is more than up to the task. He executes step after step with comic grace and athleticism. As his fiance, Susanna, Jeanine De Bique (making her SF Opera debut in her first performance of this role) is wonderful with highlights but does not sustain that level of excellence throughout. The standout performance in this production, for both acting and singing, is delivered by Serna Malfi in her SF Opera debut, in the trouser part of the hormone-addled adolescent, Cherubino. Malfi is flawless in a debut to be celebrated. More, please!

And lastly, I would be remiss if I failed to give a call out to choreographer Lawrence Pech for many moments of delight.

“The Marriage of Figaro” plays at the War Memorial Opera House through November 1, 2019. For further information, click here.


Rating: *** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

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“The Marriage of Figaro” by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. Based on the comedy by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais. Produced by the San Francisco Opera. Conductor: Henrik Nánási. Director: Michael Cavanagh. Set Designer: Erhard Rom. Costume Designer: Constance Hoffman. Lighting Designer: Jane Cox. Choreographer: Lawrence Pech. Chorus Director: Ian Robertson. 

Cast:

Figaro: Michael Samuel. Susanna: Jeanine De Bique. Bartolo: James Creswell. Marcellina: Catherine Cook. Cherubino: Serena Malfi. Almaviva: Levente Molnár. Basilio: Greg Fedderly. Rosina: Nicole Heaston. Antonio: Bojan Knezevic. Curzio: Brenton Ryan. Barbarina: Natalie Image. Bridesmaids: Jesslyn Thomas and Laurel Cameron Porter.

 

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