September 22, 2014 was the 129th opening night at the Metropolitan Opera, North America’s premiere opera company and the subject of UC Press’ fascinating new history, Grand Opera: The Story of the Met. Authors Charles and Mirella Affron, who have seen five different Met productions of Mozart’s much-loved Le Nozze di Figaro, were on hand for the latest investiture, which they have reviewed below.
Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met: September 2014
by Charles Affron and Mirella Jona Affron
The new production of Le Nozze di Figaro that opened the Met’s 2014-15 season is the sixth since 1940, when Mozart operas became firmly rooted in the company’s core repertoire. The only perennials to have received as many reinvestitures during this period are Carmen and La Traviata.
Operagoers expecting a radical staging of Nozze will be disappointed. Just as he did in his Met Carmen (2009-10) and Werther (2013-14), Richard Eyre offers up a theatrically coherent, traditional reading of the original scenario. Rob Howell’s Moorish décor lodges the piece in an emphatically recognizable Spain.
Here, as in his two previous Met productions, Eyre moves the work’s action closer to present. The late 18th-century of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s libretto and the Beaumarchais play upon which it was based becomes the late 1930s, just prior to the outbreak of World War II. Eyre acknowledges Jean Renoir’s film, The Rules of the Game, which itself explicitly states its debt to the Le Mariage de Figaro. Although little is gained by the time shift, little is lost save for powdered wigs and hip-widening panniers.
The director’s most valuable contributions are his fluent and intelligible blockings and his ability to draw lively, fresh performances from the singers. What emerges is a deftly contrived bedroom farce with deep affective overtones. The only irritating element is Eyre’s allergy to a closed curtain or an empty stage. He refused to let Bizet’s and Massenet’s preludes and entr’actes speak for themselves; he relegates Mozart’s overture to accompaniment for the Met’s turntable as it sets up the plot. The Almaviva palace and garden revolves 360 degrees, a topless servant scurries across the stage after her assignation with the strutting, self-satisfied Count, the disconsolate Countess languishes alone, Figaro begins to assemble up his marriage bed.
As seen on September 25, the well-rehearsed ensemble, under the wonderfully supportive leadership of James Levine, delivered detailed characterizations and, with one exception, sang well enough. The exception was the superlative Count of Peter Mattei. Marlis Petersen lacked Mattei’s crystalline diction but was a spirited, warm-hearted Susanna who sang her last act aria with ravishing tone. Ildar Abdrazakov’s soft-grained basso, telling in the more lyrical moments, faded in the depths of his range. Amanda Majeski, who made her debut in the high-tension atmosphere of a Met opening night, demonstrated her experience with the Countess (Chicago, Dresden), and her musicality. Mattei’s Count dominated the proceedings vocally and histrionically. He made clear that “La folle journée [the crazy day]” of Beaumarchais’s title is as much about the Count marriage as it is about Figaro’s wedding—perhaps more, since it is the master, not the servant, who is transformed by the events.
In the Act III “Hai già vinta la causa! . . . Vedrò mentre io sospiro” (MP3), the Count, realizing that he is being played for a fool, determines to reassert his authority over his wily, even subversive servants. Mattei brings alive the character’s agitation and rage, all the while unfurling his focused resonance over the aria’s steeplechase course.
Charles Affron, Professor Emeritus of French Literature at New York University, and Mirella Jona Affron, Professor Emerita of Cinema Studies at The College of Staten Island/CUNY, are coauthors of Best Years: Going to the Movies, 1945–1946 and Sets in Motion: Art Direction and Film Narrative. Charles Affron is the author of Lillian Gish: Her Legend, Her Life; Cinema and Sentiment; and Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis. Together with Robert Lyons, the authors are series editors of Rutgers Films in Print and Rutgers Depth of Field.