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Like Carmen and Madama Butterfly, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro falls into that category of well-loved operas that are delightful as long as you don’t think too hard about how fucked up they are. Yet while the first two are beautiful tragedies (about femicide and statutory rape, respectively), Figaro is supposed to be a lighthearted comedy, which means there’s only the threat of rape hanging over it: Here, a feudal lord who wishes to invoke his droit du seigneur on his pretty servant who is about to get married. And so the whole story is propelled by increasingly convoluted, zany schemes by his servants and wife—-involving cross-dressing, switched identities, R. Kelly trapped-in-the-closet scenarios and the like—-all designed to outwit and prevent this more-bumbling-than-predatory count from sexually assaulting or murdering anyone.
But of course Figaro is one of those operas that’s always being performed, which means even modern-day audiences won’t dwell on that stuff, except maybe first-timers. The thing is, Wolf Trap Opera, which is doing this umpteenth staging of Mozart’s chestnut, this one a new production by director David Paul, really is a good company for first timers. WTO is as much a training program as a performance group, coaching singers early in their careers for roles they will take on in bigger companies as full-time pros one day, it’s hoped. So doing crowd pleasers like Figaro (and, yes, Madama Butterfly later this summer) for affordable prices both preps their singers and draws an audience.
And in terms of bang for your buck, Wolf Trap Opera generally (and in this production, particularly) is a good deal. The singers are not yet marquee names, but their talents range from decent to terrific. In Figaro, the singing is strong all around—-most notably Kerriann Otaño as the scheming, long-suffering Countess, who delivers two superb and (surprisingly, for this opera) contemplative arias, Act II’s Porgi amor and Act III’s Dove sono. Fellow soprano Tayla Lieberman is also excellent as Susanna, the object of the Count’s, er, affections. Though Lieberman’s voice doesn’t draw out the same rich colors as Otaño, she does embody the full range of Susanna’s personality—-at times self-confident, vulnerable, hectoring, and warm—-through subtle, and not-so-subtle, expressions and hand gestures, drawing easy sympathy and genuine laughs. You can’t always count on acting chops among opera singers, but WTO’s cast has its comic timing down cold. Even among the more cartoonish characters, which are largely the men (or in the case of chipper mezzo Abigail Levis’ Cherubino, a woman playing a man disguised as a woman—it gets confusing). Bass-baritone Thomas Richards as Figaro, despite being the title character, is mostly relegated to (over-)reacting to stuff, while Reginald Smith as the Count alternates between murderous rage and horniness, with a resonant, hit-the-rafters baritone.
Figaro is staged at the Barns, Wolf Trap’s rough-hewn indoor venue, and many of its productions have a rustic feel to them. Here, it’s the Count’s country estate, and WTO’s economical sets, full of fancy but moldy décor, evoke a sense of feudal opulence in decline. If there’s a weak link in the production, it’s the orchestra, which played a serviceable overture but was wan for the rest of the opera and strayed off key on a couple occasions. Normally this would be a fatal blow. But even for an opera as famous as Figaro—-probably the most natural fit between music and libretto in Mozart’s body of work, in which his themes match perfectly with the tension and reveals in Lorenzo Da Ponte’s story—-there’s a lot of other things going on, and plenty to enjoy. Even if, now, the whole right-of-first-night thing isn’t as obvious a jump-off for a madcap comedy as it was in Mozart’s day.
The production repeats Wednesday, June 17 and Saturday, June 20 at 7:30 pm at the Barns at Wolf Trap, 1635 Trap Rd., Vienna. $32-88. In Italian with English surtitles.