Well, yes, it's a stretch to drag Heraclitus into a commentary on Mozartean opera, but here goes. When that philosopher famously remarked that you can't step into the same river twice, he was thinking macrocosmic. But his comment works for just about any great creative achievement of the human imagination as well. Every time you peer at, say, Velásquez' "Las Meninas," or hear, for instance, Schubert's "Dichterliebe," you see or hear something new. And there's an insightful change, minor or profound, in it and in you.
Call it some kind of iridescence if you like, the odd phenomenon that Gerard Manley Hopkins called a "shining from shook foil." Mozart's greatest operas have it in spades. You'll never hear or see Le Nozze di Figaro twice. Not even Mozart did, in a literal, workmanlike sense of the word. After its premiere in 1786, the opera received a Viennese revival three years later with a new soprano, Adriana del Bene, singing Susanna. Not content with two arias composed for the original Susanna, del Bene requested replacements. The composer obliged, although singers and conductors have largely judged them inferior and they're rarely performed these days.
That's change on a pretty matter-of-fact level. More relevant, though, are details of staging or phrasing or emphasis that allow us a novel insight into Nozze. Just about every performance provides them, and sometimes they stay with us. Trivial example: Many years ago in a Salzburg production led by Karl Böhm, the director, Günther Rennert, had Basilio make a sly, quick inspection of the contents of the Countess' writing desk. We knew instantly that her character was suspect, that dangerous games were being played and that the Almaviva household was a very nasty place.
Or, for a not-so-trivial example: the melancholy, drop-dead elegance of Lisa della Casa's Countess on the old Erich Kleiber disks. Her "Dove sono" will break your heart every time you hear it.
The production of Nozze now on view at the Santa Fe Opera has a bright particular sheen of its own, and it too offers new insights into the piece. Firmly in the SFO tradition of fine ensemble work, the show presents a solid, satisfying account of this familiar opera, and, as sometimes happens, the whole is definitely more than the sum of its parts.
Kenneth Montgomery's been something of a fixture at Santa Fe for over 25 years now, known for his middle-of-the-roadwork in the pit: not too cold, not too hot, and usually just right. He strikes a calm balance between stage and orchestra that moves the action briskly along.
Tall, dark, and handsome Luca Pisaroni makes a striking Figaro, singing out with warmth and passion. He plays it straight and persuasively, ignores the over-the-top funny stuff, and seems a natural for the role. Pisaroni towers over his Susanna, Elizabeth Watts, whose pert prettiness and fresh young voice seem just right for her finely sung last-act aria, "Deh vieni, non tardar." Even if knocked about a bit too vigorously during Figaro's "Non più andrai," Isabel Leonard as Cherubino nails the youthful ardor and sort-of innocent love-play of this adolescent Don Juan.
Central to the pathos and sublimity of the score, the role of Countess Almaviva presents some of the toughest challenges in the soprano repertoire. Although Susanna Phillips is still finding her way into the character, her "Dove sono" stands out as a lovely moment of sad stillness amid the opera's mayhem. Mariusz Kwiecien makes the Count a model of aristocratic menace. Satin-voiced, superb, a true stage animal, he's possibly the best Almaviva since Almaviva. In his great second half scena Kwiecien's cold fury, barely under control, voiced with elegance and overwhelming power, nearly bursts the seams of the role.
Although deprived of their arias in this streamlined two-act version of Nozze, the supporting roles of Bartolo (the veteran Gwynne Howell), Marcellina (Michaela Martens, allowed to play it for a change with dignity and restraint) and Basilio (former apprentice singer, Aaron Pegram) are well and truly taken, with plenty of energy and without the usual bustling caricature.
Jonathan Kent's stage direction is everything it should be: uncluttered, direct and always at the service of the music. Paul Brown's sets and costumes seem similarly appropriate, especially the sumptuous icy prison of the second half. You'll never happen upon a more floriferous staging than this one. It does have its distractions, though: Will the six imperious footmen get all those posies picked in time? Well, see for yourself.
And if you do (tickets are getting scarce), expect your visions of Nozze to be slightly changed, especially your notion of the Count. Don't be too surprised if his previously vented anger and vengefulness don't nearly usurp in your mind the Countess's climactic, pardoning gesture—the most sublime moment in Mozart's operas.
It's just not that easy, frankly, to accept forgiveness.
The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro)
9 pm Wednesday, July 9
Various times and dates through Aug. 22
Santa Fe Opera
Hwys. 84/285, 7 miles north of Santa Fe