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Another Marriage of Figaro? Really? This being the Washington National Opera’s sixth production of Mozart’s overdone chestnut, you’d hope for something really inventive to justify yet another retread—space aliens or an all-furries production or something—but alas. Maybe some famous singers then? Not really. Eye-popping sets? Nope.
What you get is a pretty boilerplate Figaro, with aristocrat-dress and lots of curtsying. It’s an uninspired production, lacking any reason for being staged other than it’ll sell reasonably well. Look, I get it, opera companies need to make that paper, and Figaros pay for the more risky stuff they might not do without some financial cushioning (in the case of WNO, Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking and Terence Blanchard’s Champion, both in the spring). And the WNO just came off of last season’s hugely ambitious, expensive, and slightly insane Ring cycle. So you can cut them some slack for picking something easy.
But everything about this production has the feel of phoning it in. The set design is spare, consisting of pillars and big empty spaces. The costumes are bright but otherwise normal period-appropriate. The singing, maybe due to relative inexperience (about half the cast is current or recent members of WNO’s apprenticeship program for young singers), is bland and workmanlike. With one exception: soprano Amanda Majeski, as the Countess, who carried her duet partners throughout the opera and delivered an especially sweet “Porgi, amor” in Act II. But that’s about it. You’d expect the strongest singing from the characters in the titular marriage, but as Figaro, Ryan McKinny’s breathy baritone doesn’t resonate, and as Susanna, Lisette Oropesa’s meek soprano gets drowned out by the orchestra for the first half of the opera. It’s kind of like a production of Romeo and Juliet in which Romeo and Juliet have zero chemistry and are upstaged by Tybalt. Think Romeo Must Die with Jet Li and Aaliyah.
Still, it’s perennially popular, for reasons that escape me. OK, the music is indeed great. Figaro was the apex of Mozart’s various collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and the music marches in lockstep with the story’s many twists and turns. But this is, nevertheless, a deeply stupid story, even by opera buffa standards. Figaro and Susanna want to get married, but Figaro’s patron, Count Almaviva, wants to exercise his droit du seigneur on Susanna (i.e. fuck her). Somehow preventing him from doing so requires zany machinations involving a woman playing a man disguised as a woman, and two people being literally trapped in the closet like, you know who.
This being a comedy, the Count doesn’t succeed, because as we know in opera, rape may be tragic (more for society than the victim), but statutory rape is romantic and attempted rape is funny. It’s not so much that an 18th century opera doesn’t correspond to 21st century sensibilities. Rather this is an unlikely candidate for timeless knee-slapper given its unnecessarily convoluted plot hinging on an archaic, barbaric custom. But hey, it’s got a pretty overture.
Conductor James Gaffigan, another WNO rookie, isn’t bad leading the orchestra; aside from booming a little too much in the first half, there were no obvious errors, though any opera orchestra should be able to play Figaro on autopilot. Glimmerglass regular Peter Kazaras directs, serving the WNO in a similar capacity he did with 2014’s La Bohème, doing a safe take on an opera standard that’s certain not to offend any subscribers. Then, given the opera, the WNO could cover up the weak singing with terrific sets. This time, for Figaro, there’s not much to hide behind.
The production continues through Oct. 2 at the Kennedy Center Opera House, 2700 F St. NW. $45 – $315.