The Canadian Opera Company presents Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro in Toronto
There are two reasons that The Canadian Opera Company and I get along so well: fashion and spectacle. I enjoy and appreciate the COC in its daring displays, its peacockery and preening; from the fashion-infused annual gala to the richly appointed productions well-stocked with talent and excitement.
It’s hard to say that this production of The Marriage of Figaro, directed by Claus Guth, was disappointing, that seems unfair – everyone involved was certainly talented and turned in a solid performance. The set was fine, as were the costumes and the lighting. The orchestra sounded pretty good, and so on. But at the opera, I expect to be stirred (especially at 3.5 hours long). I expect to be moved out of thinking “this staging is interesting” and into delight, or despair, or the difficult recognition of universal truth. This Figaro felt like the taupe raincoat that Figaro himself wears in the opening scene of this staging: perfectly serviceable and quite practical.
In a house of stairs and hallways live people of great passion and desire. Some of them desire the appropriate people, those to whom they are wed, or to whom they soon will be wed, but the fire, the story, and the trouble all come from desiring the wrong people. And desire the wrong people they do.
In tidy couples, the house is presided over by The Count (Russell Braun) and The Countess (Erin Wall). Figaro (Josef Wagner), who works for the count, seeks to marry Susanna (Jane Archibald), who works for The Countess. The Count has recently revoked droit de seigneur, his right to deflower any woman under his protection on her wedding night, and Figaro and Susanna are the first couple to marry since. The Count, who perhaps regrets his benevolence, lusts after Susanna, and tries to delay the wedding in order to have sex with her. During the delay, Marcelina (Helene Schneierman) arrives, and attempts to press The Count into marrying Figaro to her, a term she claims stems from a debt Figaro still owes her. Eventually it is revealed that Marcelina is in fact Figaro’s mother, and she transforms her amorous love for him to parental love, and decides to marry Figaro’s father at a double ceremony as Figaro marries Susanna.
With all of this going on, one expects to be transported by all the heat and hijinks. There were moments of weak laughter, but only ever weak laughter, and opera should be a study in robust emotions. In an opera that is absolutely about inappropriate passions and unbridled desire, the emotions of this production are always controlled, muted, stilted. The thrilling exception to this rule, musically, was coloratura soprano Jane Archibald, whose solos especially pierced the monochrome fog of this production and gave us glimpses of wonder.
The delightful exception to all of my general complaints is Cherubino (Emily Fons, playing a frolicsome boy character): by far the most appealing character, and totally believable as the love interest and/or sexual playmate of Susanna, The Countess, and Barbarina (Sasha Djihanian). Cherubino is charming, playful, present. His devil-may-care attitude and sweet nature please the women he woos, and while he is repeatedly banished by The Count for his sexual transgressions, he never takes the consequences seriously. Fons, who has made a career of trouser roles, is excellent here.
My favorite character though is the house cherubim, played by Uli Kirsh. Appearing whenever people are making choices based on their misplaced desires, he is a beautiful and mischievous presence. Blowing feathers, invisibly controlling the people, riding a unicycle, or balanced on The Count’s shoulders he sails in and out, causing trouble as he goes. It’s an excellent use of the role (and a very talented performer), but also worrisome that my favorite character in this opera is a silent one.
A few words need to be said about the set always being interstitial space. All the action takes place between chambers, in stairwells, in hallways, in The Countess’ antechambers. We spend time in four different stairwells, including one clearly designed by Escher, heaped with dried leaves and other bits of garden.While I’m sure these were intended as a metaphor for something, they mostly posed the distracting question of how a household with so many servants could not find anyone to sweep the dead leaves off the stairs. There are also odd and ill-advised projections that crop up.
The Marriage of Figaro is a solid B effort. There is nothing to complain about, but nothing to sing about either.
- The Marriage of Figaro plays until February 27th at The Four Seasons Center, 145 Queen St W.
- Performances are at 7:30pm through the period; the schedule can be viewed here.
- Ticket prices range from $45 – $365. Patrons under 30 can purchase tickets for $22 or $35 here.
- Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416-363-8231 (long distance 1-800-250-4653)
(l-r) Erin Wall as the Countess, Emily Fons as Cherubino and Jane Archibald as Susanna in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Marriage of Figaro, 2016. Conductor Johannes Debus, director Claus Guth, set and costume designer Christian Schmidt, lighting designer Olaf Winter, video designer Andi A. Müller, and choreographer Ramses Sigl. Photo: Michael Cooper