The Handel & Haydn Society, at the modern extreme of its current chronological and temporal range, brought an exquisitely played and sung, and very well-blocked and costumed Marriage of Figaro to a nearly full Symphony Hall on Thursday and a sold-out one on Friday. After two rewarding weeks of rehearsal, but with only a couple of days to do the blocking in Symphony Hall, the cast conductor, and fortepianist melded as if long-time collaborators with the responsive and sonorous H+H orchestra and chorus
Conductor Raphaël Pichon, an amazingly sensitive advocate for singers, and for singing tone from orchestras, deserves a large share of the success. We’ve never heard the H+H orchestra sound more engaged and at the same time refined than it did in the overture…and yes, the entire evening. Pichon drew soft and sly wit with a wink and a smile as if he were already telegraphing the irony of the characters awaiting to be seen as the virtual curtain would rise. Tempos began fleet but artfully un-pushed. Winds burbled delightfully. Accents never became exclamation points. Legato lines ran true. Under Pichon, the players inflected as if singing words. And when interacting with singers, they did so in enlightened and sometimes bawdy conversation.
“Early music has become “a new tradition, so of course, there is a risk where we could sit in a really comfortable chair and say, ‘OK, that’s great, now we know how to perform, we discovered a really wide repertoire, let’s continue to play that, year after year.’”…. He shivered at a mention of its bygone preoccupation with “authenticity” — “truth is the opposite of music,” he said — and instead sees the period-instrument spirit as a means to communicate in the present, as “a way of life, a way of transmission, a way of expression,” Pichon told the NY Times in an interview with David Allen.
Before Figaro and Susannah entered, we beheld a couple of chairs and some packing crates on the stage fronting the orchestra. But upon their arrival we immediately took note of Molly Irelan’s costumes. Though apparently completed only during the rehearsal period, these well-draped and often-glad rags perfectly defined character and mood as well as filling in for sets. We feel obligated to include a large photomontage of Sam Brewer’s images at the end of the review. The single costuming miscue came in the puff sleeves that Cherubino would don with engaging in the trouser-role conceit of a woman playing a man-playing a woman. Those puff sleeves looked ridiculous and covered his/her’s face.
One witty clothing transformation needs to be highlighted: Basilios aria, “In quegli anni in cui val poco (disgrace and death may be warded off by the skin of an ass) gave Irelan the opportunity for a theatrical coup as an innocuous and formless sash morphed into a formal cutaway jacket by prestidigitation. Tenor Zachary Wilder also actually sang the role which is often played just for laughs. He brought lovely tones and a dancer’s litheness…and he managed the comic touches without descending into camp. Following Stage Director James Darrah’s dictates, he acted as though he did not realize that he was ridiculous. He also got a chance to show that he knew how to beat four when he mocked conducted eight female choristers.
In the first aria of the opera, Figaro (Krzysztof Bączyk) though measuring Susannah rather than their future nuptial room, at once established a believable chemistry for the pair. His noble baritone projected powerfully without force over a broad register. As an actor, he recalled the stone-faced Buster Keaton, and could do pratfalls with similar grace, though he went light on buffoonery. Later he served up “Se vuol ballare” (If you would dance my noble lord, ’tis I will call the tune) into the house as if in a game of wits with the hapless Count Almaviva. Figaro should command the stage as the smartest and wiliest individual (at least among the men!)… and he did.
Of course, all eyes and ears focused on Ying Fang’s peerless Susannah, beginning in her ding dong duet with Figaro: “Se a caso” (If perchance Madama should call you at night). With perfectly focused yet creamy tones, which could color and modulate like a lieder singer, she owned the role. And she executed Darrah’s always appropriate stage business with nuance. Even when silently observing other characters, she showed total immersion in character through a very emotive face.
Among her many star moments, the letter duet with the countess “Sull’aria” (On the breeze) earned a very high critical score, as the two sopranos blended over alternating registers in that immortal tune. As Countess Almaviva, Jacquelyn Stucker, stopped the show (earning the most bravis of the night) and stopped time altogether in her despairing paean to constancy: “Dove sono” (Where are the golden moments of tranquility and pleasure?).
Cherubino mezzo-soprano Paula Murrihy gave a show-stealing account of the amorous young laddy. S-he gets two of Mozart’s top arias. In his/her’s first aria “Non so più cosa son,” (I no longer know what I am, what I do; now I’m all fire, now all ice) she represented a fine theatrical ambivalence—feverish, ardent, and coltish– in a mature but at once boyish mezzo, deployed without artifice. Pichon’s followed with a singer’s flexibility and nuance, supporting the patient poignance. Murrihy’s timeless “Voi che sapete” (You who know what love is, ladies, Not in a military tunic) provided one of many opportunities for the excellent fortepianist Ronan Khalil to ripple and stroke the very responsive fortepiano, a Walther copy by Rod Regier. This time he sounded like a serenader’s mandolin. Throughout, his attentive continuo, colorful, flexible, and original, gave much pleasure and earned him a grateful solo bow when Figaro consciously dragged him to the curtain-call line.
Count Almavia, in the person of bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum made a mixed impression. His lumberjack’s beard looked un-aristocratic, and on Friday he started out sounding rather dry in the first two acts. But he warmed up as the drama intensified and fully inhabited his role by the final scenes, holding his own vocally with his servant finally, and reconciling with grace at the end.
In smaller but nevertheless essential roles, bass Scott Conner (Bartolo & Antonio) and mezzo-soprano MaryAnn McCormick (Marcellina) brought vivid life to the stereotypes—Conner with theatrical rigidity and McCormack with a sensational shimmy. Barbarina Maya Kherani transcended the usual soubrette piping to console us with “L’ho perduta, me meschina!” (I have lost it, unhappy me!). Scott Conner, voicing Bartolo & Antonio, gave us comedy through a bass-baritone instrument that made us take note of the music as much as the comedy.
The H+H chorus left us wanting more after their sole major number “Giovani liete, fiori spargete” (Carefree girls, scatter flowers before this noble master of ours.) Instead of more choruses, Mozart provisioned the opera with numerous large vocal ensembles including the amazing and peerless series at the end of act 2, when, according to Charles Rosen, “The tour de force of this new conception of musical continuity in drama as an increasing complexity of independent units is the famous second act finale, which moves from duet, through trio, quartet, and quintet to septet in a magnificently symmetrical tonal scheme.”
The beloved Harry Christophers has left the H+H Period Orchestra and Chorus in fine fettle. Responding to Raphaël Pichon with conviction and advanced chops, the orchestra earned the laurels and rose petals that Basilio had strewed so carelessly. Whether in Janissary frenzy, aristocratic restraint, or consoling reverence, Pichon nailed every nuance of evergreen moral fable. Everyone in the sold-out house realized that we had collectively experienced a great and memorable night in the musical theater firmament.
In addition to calling out the excellent fortepianst, I wish to thank and acknowledge the bright, warm, vocal, and inerrant winds and brass:
Chair Funded in Part by
Dr. Michael Fisher Sandler
Grace & John Neises Chair