Cleveland Orchestra’s “Marriage of Figaro”

For the first time in over thirty years the Cleveland Orchestra performed from the orchestra pit in Severance Hall to accompany a staged operatic performance, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro,” conducted by Franz Welser-Möst, in a production largely imported from the Zurich Opera, of which Franz is the Music Director.  (Coincidentally enough, in the past week or so EMI has released a DVD of the companion Zurich production, starring sexy Erwin Schrott as Figaro, but with several of the same cast as in Cleveland.) The performance last night was brilliant in almost every way. (You can download the program notes here.)   I’ve never been very convinced by the orchestra’s concert opera performances (three of the Wagner “Ring” operas under Dohnanyi, most recently “Rosenkavalier” and “Rusalka” under Welser-Möst), because the orchestra always overwhelms the voices–the balances just are not right. But with the orchestra in the pit, it was much more in balance, and the sound was very good.  Franz really seemed to be in his element–everything was together and clear, even from my perch close to the top of the balcony. Who could imagine a more perfect pit orchestra for Mozart than the Cleveland Orchestra? Their playing was beyond reproach.  The singers were all really good–not a dud in the bunch, but particularly Martina Janková and Malin Hartelius, who sang Susanna and the Countess, respectively, were the best.  I’m not sure that either one would make as strong an impression in a house as big as the Met, but in Severance Hall there was no problem in hearing them. The cast seemed all quite young, except for the more mature Diana Montague, who sang Marcellina, but she has lovely voice (and was well in control of it.)  The Countess’s aria “Dove sono” was exquisite–and not a noise in the audience. The men were all uniformly excellent.  The young Swiss baritone Ruben Drole sang Figaro, and Michael Volle was Count Almaviva.  American mezzo Isabel Leonard was a convincing Cherubino.  The smaller roles were all strong. “Marriage of Figaro” depends greatly on its ensemble singing, and this group acted and sang together very convincingly.   As you know, I am not a fan of standing ovations, but this one was spontaneous and deserved.

It was a “concept” staging (restaged from the original Zurich production for Severance Hall by Timo Schlüssel), but not obnoxious.  The costumes were updated to 1920’s-ish (formal evening dress for the Count and Countess, smart suits and business suits for the next lower class–Bartolo and Marcellina, and house dresses and workers clothes for Figaro and Susanna.  The chorus was outfitted in maids uniforms and what looked like Iowa farmers from the 20s (mostly bib overalls–what’s up with that?)  Mostly black and white, except for the earth tones of the chorus.  They did not try to cover up the stage shell, although there were panels that covered the upstage organ pipes.  There were abstract geometrical objects as set pieces for Acts 1-3, and the set for Act 4 was a stylized merry-go-round (with carousel horses)  which people hid behind.  There’s a lot of hiding in plain sight in this opera, and it worked quite well.  The lighting was not full stage lighting, but was not just concert lighting–there were shades of different colors and it changed for the different parts of the opera.  The staging was imaginative, a bit racy,  (use your imagination for Susanna’s line early in Act 1 “Ding, ding, DONG DONG” in which she is holding a prop bed leg…) but didn’t force a concept down your throat.  The only thing that I didn’t get was that the Count seemed to be an amateur magician, so every once in a while he did some sort of magic trick.  I suspect that there may have been some sort of symbolism, but I didn’t get it.  Even though it was a quite simple staging, it was thoroughly professional, well-executed.  The Severance Hall pit is not large, and it seemed to be quite filled, so I don’t think we’re going to be seeing Elektra or Salome with the orchestra in the pit, but the Mozart worked very well.  For the recitatives, they used a fortepiano to accompany (with Enrico Cacciari playing), rather than a harpsichord.  The fortepiano is preferable.

The house was full, with only a few isolated single empty seats.

It was a long evening–started at 7:00 and the final curtain call ended at almost exactly 11:00.  There was just one intermission, between acts 2 and 3, with short breaks between Acts 1 & 2 and Acts 3 & 4.  I was there for the opening night performance, which included a pre-curtain champagne reception for the audience, complete with young women in Spanish costume posed in various spots of the lobby, looking alluring.  Had I forgotten and for a production of “Carmen”?  Especially given the sylized production, it was incongruous.

There are further performances on March 25, 27, and 29.  It’s my understanding that they are mostly sold out, but it’s worth a try to get tickets.  I think you won’t be disappointed.  This was a triumph.

On a more sobering note, when I arrived at home (at 11:30) and checked my email, I discovered a message from Gary Hanson, the orchestra’s Executive Director, detailing the very dispiriting steps that the orchestra is taking to reduce costs in light of the current extended economic downturn and a substantial loss in the orchestra’s endowment.  Staff are being asked to take pay cuts; when union negotiations for a new musicians’ contract begin, the management will seek concessions; overtime will be eliminated, as will musical works calling for extra performers.  Some tour performances for which a loss would be projected will be eliminated.  It was a sobering assessment, but as always the emphasis is on the continued musical excellence of the orchestra.

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