As the climax of their thirtieth season Opera Lyra present Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro, beginning with tonight’s opening performance. This is an opera company that has come back from the brink, bouncing back from financial difficulty with a series of smart productions. Kevin Mallon is the Interim Artistic Director as well as the conductor.
I had to go to Ottawa to see & hear for myself, hopeful that the company was rising again under Mallon’s clever influence, and yes, enticed by the casting, which was almost 100% Canadian.
I have to quote James Westman from a recent interview:
We have a massive tradition of opera in Canada. It stems from the profound tutelage of the University of Toronto Opera School that was created from talented Italian opera ‘refugees’ after WW2. Most people do not realize that Canada produces more professional opera singers per capita than any other country in the word. Canadian singers have been representing Canada with excellence for many years.
For example, this afternoon’s Met broadcast of Manon featured three Canadians (Russell Braun, Robert Pomakov and Mireille Asselin). Our talent goes all over the world, so why not in Ottawa?
As you may have read in some of the other pieces I’ve posted recently in anticipation of my trip to Ottawa (such as interviews with Westman and John Brancy as well as a piece showing photos of the cast), the design concept of the production set Mozart’s opera in the period of Downton Abbey, aka Edwardian England. And so for instance when Dr Bartolo will usually sing his aria “la vendetta”, including the lines “all Seville knows me, I’m Doctor Bartolo”, in this version that becomes “all England knows me, I’m Doctor Bartolo”. Or when Cherubino is given a commission by the Count to join his regiment, the uniform is from that time.
I can give you several reasons why you should see it, starting with the simple fact that it’s a good production. Director Tom Diamond grounds the action in real motivations, making the interactions sometimes very serious and intense, even if there’s lots of fun to be had. A few moments might illustrate why it’s so special, from a cast that’s strong from top to bottom.
I was caught by surprise watching the moment in a sextet in the third act when Susanna is told that Marcellina is Figaro’s mother, and Bartolo his father. I’ve seen this so many times I didn’t think I could be surprised, especially in a production that’s ostensibly faithful to the text. Sasha Djihanian in her role debut as Susanna did something quite different from what one usually sees. Marcellina (Lynne McMurtry) wants to embrace Susanna as her mother (having just realized the family relationship with Figaro, Susanna’s intended), leading to an exchange that can get quite silly, as Susanna says “sua madre?” (or “his mother”), Bartolo, the Count, Don Curzio and Marcellina reply “sua madre” then she asks Figaro “sua madre?” to which he replies “E quello è mio padre che a te lo dirà.” (or “and this is my father he’ll tell you himself”). The back and forth is already mechanically challenging, so that it can (and often does) become quite wooden in some productions. What I saw this time that was so different was that Djihanian sustained the puzzlement for the entire exchange, while the questions shot back and forth, showing much more truthfulness in this exchange than I’ve ever seen, while building simple suspense, making the resolution of the ensemble into a moment of great pathos and vulnerability.
Djihanian, who’s just finished her run as Zerlina in the Tcherniakov Don Giovanni in Toronto, was taking on this role for the first time, with a beautifully expressive face and natural unaffected delivery, completely believable as the figure at the centre of the story.
Her Figaro was John Brancy, a warm baritone whose friendly manner keeps the story light & funny, without too much emphasis on class struggle. Similarly, James Westman’s Count, while an imposing physical presence (my wife said he reminded her of “Big” from the TV show Sex and the City) with a wonderful voice also chose to emphasize the comical side of the story. Westman’s reading interpolated a great number of high notes into his da capo verses, apparently drawing on suggestions from authentic sources suggested by conductor Mallon. His Countess was Nathalie Paulin, who balanced the light-hearted elements of the show with depth in her arias lamenting the passing of love in her relationship.
The other key role in the opera is Wallis Giunta’s Cherubino. We’d already seen her remarkable trouser performance in La Clemenza di Tito of a few years ago when she channelled Michael Cera. This was entirely different, sung with great authority & confidence, while played with a physical flamboyance that made her every appearance an occasion for laughs, the one you couldn’t help watching.
But there were several more excellent portrayals. Peter McGillivray was his usual talented self, singing perfectly as Bartolo while having several sparkling comic moments. Lynne McMurtry, whom I already mentioned, was a three-dimensional Marcellina, including the rarely performed Act IV aria. Johane Ansell made more of the small role of Barbarina than anyone I’ve ever seen, including a compelling reading of the aria that opens Act IV. Aaron Ferguson made the most of his two roles as Basilio and Don Curzio. And Sean Watson was a surprisingly strong Antonio.
Mallon’s reading was energetic for the most part, bringing the opera home in a very respectable three hours with an intermission, his cast decorating their parts with many attractive interpolations. The National Arts Centre Orchestra are a wonderful ensemble who sounded superb in this space. Diamond’s Figaro is completely straight-forward and without any directorial overlays, and totally intelligible while avoiding cheap laughs, always grounded in the feelings of the story.
Opera Lyra’s Le nozze di Figaro runs until March 28th.
As a postscript there was a joyful announcement at the post-opening reception that drew a huge scream of joy from all present when it was announced that John Brancy (Figaro) and Wallis Giunta (Cherubino) are now engaged to be married. Mazel Tov!