Green Is Gold

Fluent 'Figaro' debuts at SFO

Rod Stewart probably wouldn’t mind if I fiddle with the title of one of his 1971 blockbuster hits.  Thus: “Every color tells a story.” Think red, and the story’s angry or bloody or just plain röslein rot .  Think blue, and the story’s bluesy or celestial or just l'heure bleue .  Think green, and the story’s envy or Margaret Hamilton or, best of all, The Marriage of Figaro , currently on display in the Santa Fe Opera’s floriferous, green-is-good production of Mozart’s ever----- opera.

It’s an eye-easy production, a revival of the 2008 show, with its emphasis on copious greenery. You want flowers? You’ve got ’em, since that’s what Paul Brown’s set design is mostly about: a fair field of posies that carpets the stage at the outset and is omnipresent elsewhere. (Although, it must be admitted, by the end of the last act’s furious tramplings, the poor dears need a floriculturalist.)

Bouquets abound in the Countess’ bedroom; geraniums serve as a weapon in gardener Antonio’s grimy hands; tussy-mussies appear everywhere. To what purpose, you may ask? Stage director Bruce Donnell might answer: because this take on Figaro focuses upon floral freshness, exuberance, green youth and the—alas, consequent—follies of the young. Remember, after all, the script’s only true begetter was Beaumarchais’ play, La Folle Journée , or in its first English translation, The Follies of a Day . So be advised: this show plays lightly upon forgivable folly rather than the cruelty and vengefulness inherent in the plot.

Donnell’s treatment reminds us that Beaumarchais set his action just three years after Count Almaviva’s wooing of Rosina in The Barber of Seville , prequel to Da Ponte’s Figaro libretto. The principal characters presented here are 20-somethings, excepting the puberty-stricken Cherubino and Barbarina. Advantages? Energy, vitality, testosterone. Disadvantages? Not so much emphasis on liberté, égalité, fraternité nor on the sad depths of the Almavivas’ failed marriage.

But in the stretch, nothing succeeds like success, and on its own terms, SFO’s Figaro, buoyant and gay, gladdens the heart. Conductor John Nelson, 40 years since his company debut, leads a fluent account of the score, every detail lovingly in place, every nuance precisely molded. His cast serves him to near-perfection. Zachary Nelson’s sturdy sparkplug of a Figaro is a study in resourcefulness. Agile, enthusiastic, usually the smartest guy in the room, Nelson has all the vocal and physical chops the role demands.

His Susanna, Lisette Oropesa, makes an incandescent debut. I still can’t get her limpid, astutely phrased “Deh vieni” out of my head. That Letter Duet, “Sull’aria” with the Countess, could hardly be better sung. Susanna Phillips, as the unhappy Rosina, had an issue last Friday night when her entrance aria “Porgi amor” went awry in pitch and dynamics, but made a solid recovery. “Dove sono,” marked dolce in the score, sounded sweet indeed, and Phillips’ mezza voce reprise enchanted our ears if it didn’t quite break our hearts.

Similarly, just as this portrayal of the Countess touches lightly upon her vulnerability and despair, the Count’s vengeful rage gets the soft pedal as well. Daniel Okulitch, an imposing Almaviva, uses his bright baritone to good effect, although his aria lacks much of the terrifying menace that’s in the character.

To paraphrase the old saw, there are no minor roles, just minor singers. Nobody’s minor here. Veterans Dale Travis as Bartolo and Susanne Mentzer as Marcellina do the buffa thing with energy and aplomb; the ever-reliable Keith Jameson oils his way around the stage as Basilio; apprentices Adam Lau (Antonio) and Rachel Hall (Barbarina) make swell impressions.

Emily Fons as Cherubino deserves special mention. She’s had illustrious predecessors here in the role, Helen Vanni, Frederica von Stade and Isabel Leonard among them. But fret not. Fons is up there with the best in terms of flexibility, phrasing, vivacity. “Voi che sapete” nearly steals the Countess’ heart, and it easily steals ours in SFO’s verdant, amiable take on Mozart’s sophisticated school for lovers.

The Marriage of Figaro

$32-$285. 8:30 pm July 10;

8 pm Aug. 3, 8, 13, 20 & 23.

Santa Fe Opera, 301 Opera Drive, 986-5955

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