WNO’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’: A Big Musical Cake

When opera companies program half of their seasons with popular and familiar operas like “La Boheme,” “Carmen,” “Madame Butterfly” and, hello, here comes “The Marriage of Figaro,” there is usually something of a critical note of disapproval.

These operas are often categorized as operas for people who hate opera. I beg to differ here; I think they may just be operas for people who love opera. I’m betting also that that’s the case for Washington National Opera’s season-opening production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” which is most of all a grand entertainment, a big fat musical cake, a great, bamboozling night at the opera that sometimes resembles the hair-raising Marx Brothers movie “A Night at the Opera.”

Besides which, it’s Mozart.

It is long? You bet, nearly three hours.

Is it old? Yup, it had its debut in the Burgtheater in Vienna in 1786, Maestro Mozart directing the opening himself. The Revolutionary War, for what it’s worth, was in its 10th year since the Declaration of Independence.

Does it have a ridiculous plot, full of disguises, plots inside plots, a pants part (girl sings boy), mistaken identities, people hiding behind trees in the same garden, music that’s almost Muzak familiar? Yes, and yes, and yes and yes.

At some level, “The Marriage of Figaro,” like “Così fan tutti,” operates at the level of silly, clownish. But that level is a very high level on several counts, not the least of which is Mozart’s music, which, for sheer difficulty, ingenuity, style, is almost recklessly, and very fluently audacious, including the always satisfying overture.

But the shenanigans in this, as in “Così” (which is in fact referenced at one point to the delight of a mostly knowing audience), might indeed run to slapstick on light feet, and become at one point or another almost unknowable in terms of keeping the characters straight (or bent). But there’s an inherently sophisticated attitude at work here that anticipates Richard Strauss and Hollywood screwball comedies as well as the madcap Marx Brothers. That’s the work of Mozart’s favorite librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, with whom he worked on “Don Giovanni” and “Così,” who writes librettos that you can actually read for their wit and language.

What you have is Figaro, now a servant to a lecherous but not altogether bright count, who is set to marry the lovely servant girl Susanna, who may be smarter than everybody. Figaro, who moves around the stage like a juggler and an acrobat, must find a way to keep the Count from seducing or having his way — including using the right of first encounter on the wedding night — with Susanna. Also involved, a mezzo-voiced manservant named Cherobino, an older couple who figure in surprising ways and the beautiful, languid Countess herself, deeply sad over her husband’s notorious philandering. There are closets, trees, open windows to jump out of and a couple of very big surprises, plus an aria that will break your heart during the course of the long evening.

Director Peter Kazaras’s biggest gift here is to keep things moving at a near breathless pace, something that’s aided and abetted by conductor James Gaffigan.

We’ve all seen the circus entry under the big top where the clowns, the jugglers, the jumpers, the animal trainers and the beautiful trapeze artist come rolling out, as do even more clowns. “Figaro” resembles this parade often, except when the light shines on Lisette Oropesa, who sings with authority and certainty, or on Elizabeth Bishop in the pants part of Cherubino, with a mezzo voice that milks remarkable tones from the music. The boys — baritone Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva and bass-baritone Ryan McKinny — are perhaps not as full-voiced as one might like, but they have an impressive stage presence, agile voices and, in McKinny’s case, even more agility and dexterity as he pounces around the stage like someone who’s still mad about not making the U.S. gymnastics team.

And then there’s soprano Amanda Majeski, who reminds us that we are in a Mozart opera, after all, not just a really big show. In the middle of this madness, her Countess is a decidedly complicated human being, and it comes through in her singing — modulated for emotional clarity — and in her presence, which nags at us with the thought that she’s a woman with a heart and faith that’s nearly broken, amid a mountain of nuttiness.

She’s the centerpiece of an epic comedy, and a major piece of stagecraft and entertainment.

Joshua Hopkins, Lisette Oropesa and Amanda Majeski.

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