COC Figaro: memories of Don JianGhomeshi

The media have brutalized us the past few weeks. It’s not enough to be watching Dumb and Dumber, aka the GOP’s epic displays of bigotry. And if they aren’t reporting on the cop who emptied his gun into a deranged addict, or the truck sale gone wrong, we’re hearing about a series of bad dates with a former CBC host.

Does no mean no?

The nature of consent in a first date has been on my mind, listening to these accounts of women who are now coming forward with complaints, after being silent for awhile. Such were my thoughts as I watched the opening tonight of the Canadian Opera Company’s new Marriage of Figaro, a production containing more sexuality & violence than I expected.

While some productions of Figaro are light romps, and others such as Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s production for the Met emphasized the class war underlying the power struggle between the Count and his servant Figaro, Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s comedy –brought to the COC in 2016 after a sensational reception in Europe –is more than anything a study in the intersection between sexuality & violence. In the second number we usually hear Figaro eagerly speak of how convenient it is to have a room right beside his master, where the Count can ring for his servant, and Susanna replies, admonishing Figaro, that in fact this gives the Count the ability to send Figaro far away so he can have his way with her. Usually this is a theoretical discussion, not something including a show and tell. In this production we see the Count briefly drag Susanna into a room right in the middle of that number, then releasing her just in time for her to explain why it might not be quite so wonderful to have a room beside the Count & Countess. We are not dealing with hypotheticals but seeing them enacted, and this happens again and again in this show, as Cherubino, Susanna, the Count, the Countess, Barbarina each in turn grab our attention by being libidinous.

Or should i say bawdy?

But it’s darkly powerful, very sexy at times, and with an edge such as no production of Figaro I’ve ever seen, amd as current as the headlines in today’s newspaper.

Last year the COC brought us Dmitri Tcherniakov’s Don Giovanni, a study in an obsolete personality, outgrown by modern humanity who no longer needs the Don Juan type. But nobody told the Count, who is struggling with the same neurosis, amplified by a noble’s sense of entitlement. Ian Henderson coined the cute phrase “Don JianGhomeshi” that seems apt for our love-hate relationship with the eternal libertine seducer.

Perhaps one reason I’m thinking of this as a sequel to the Tcherniakov is that we’re blessed with a few of the same brilliant principals once more. Russell Braun’s Don is back, in a more romantic form, as the Count who eventually does reconcile with his Countess. Jane Archibald is now Susanna (last year’s Donna Anna), while Sasha Djihanian (last year’s Zerlina) is now Barbarina.


Pianist and Conductor Jordan de Souza (Brent Calis Photography)

One thing I looked for in the program that I sought in vain concerned the pianist for the recitatives. I believe that when Johannes Debus took his bow at the end, the person he raised first in the orchestra was Jordan de Souza (or that’s who it appeared to be at the piano….i could be wrong), the man who happens to be conducting two performances later in February, and coincidentally playing the piano for Tapestry Songbook VI this Friday & Saturday nights. He gave us some of the most stylishly embellished segues & cadences to these recitatives I’ve ever heard, a constant delight throughout.

In fact I understand (from an enquiry after the show) that de Souza was an emergency replacement for Michael Shannon, who was injured and unable to play, perhaps explaining the look of gratitude on Debus’ face as he acknowledged de Souza’s contribution.  Anyone seeing the next few performances will get to hear de Souza until Shannon’s good to go.

The funniest performers in the show had relatively small parts. Djihanian stole every scene in which she appeared with a voice that I heard as Susanna in Ottawa last year, certainly luxury casting for the COC. Robert Pomakov was delightfully deadpan, hysterically funny in scenes where one doesn’t usually expect to be laughing at Bartolo, such as the duet between Marcellina and Susanna, where he became an animated prop for the women to duel over. Doug MacNaughton made Antonio into a wonderful oddball of a gardener.


Johannes Debus (Photo – Michael Cooper)

While I don’t believe Guth’s concepts –including a winged cherub character and assorted dead birds—do any violence to the story, there were moments when he had the good sense to stay out of the way. And so Erin Wall’s portrayal of the Countess is untrammeled by bird or cherub, both her arias representing highlights. I liked Emily Fons’ vocal characterization of Cherubino as much as I was captivated by her effortless movement vocabulary suggesting an adolescent male. Josef Wagner was a solid Figaro.

Debus with the COC orchestra plus de Souza at the piano carried us along in another thoroughly prepared performance, irresistible because it’s true to Mozart. Those two –Debus & de Souza– are the real stars.

The COC’s new Marriage of Figaro continues at the Four Seasons Centre until February 27th.

This entry was posted in Music and musicology, Opera, Popular music & culture. Bookmark the permalink.

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