In the third act of French author Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ play, The Marriage of Figaro, the titular character references an Italian expression: Tempo e galant’uomo: “Time will show in the end who means harm and who doesn’t” in the Penguin edition; sometimes also rendered as, “time is a gentlemen.”
So it is in Mozart’s opera, where no matter how many schemes, misunderstandings and revelations ensue (and many, many do), the audience for this opera buffa (comic opera) knows all will turn out well.
But time itself is a character in the opera, and not always a lighthearted one in the Santa Fe Opera’s moving production. As written, all the events take place in the course of 24 hours (Beaumarchais’ play is alternatively titled The Follies of a Day). In the current production, time remains front and center throughout, courtesy of French set designer Chantal Thomas’ revolving turntable, which resembles a large clock accompanied by massive brass gears that convey both the passage of time throughout the opera’s four acts (the play itself is close to three and a half hours long), Beaumarchais’ early career as a watchmaker and the whirling components of the opera’s complex plot and themes. When still, the set presents time as an overbearing, even dogmatic, presence. In motion, it becomes a force unto itself, and a dizzying one at that.
First performed in 1786 in Vienna, The Marriage of Figaro ranks high on all the top operas in history lists—in his pre-opera talk, lecturer Oliver Prezant references Brahms’ description of every number in it as “a miracle”— as well as a showcase for the collaborative magic between Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte (who also wrote the librettos for Mozart’s operas Don Giovanni and Cosi Fan Tutte).
Beaumarchais first introduced audiences to the characters in The Marriage of Figaro in his play The Barber of Seville (which also became an opera, this one by Rossini). Mozart’s “sequel” opens with Figaro (bass-baritone Nicholas Brownlee in his company debut) and his fiancee Susanna (soprano Ying Fang, also debuting) preparing for their wedding—Figaro by taking measurements for their marital bed and Susanna by trying on her bridal hat—when the first obstacle to their union emerges. Count Almaviva (baritone Samuel Dale Johnson, in his SFO debut), whom Figaro serves as a valet, plans to use a medieval feudal right, aka jus primae noctis or Le droit du seigneur, to bed Susanna, Countess Almaviva’s maid, on her wedding night. Figaro begins to hatch a plan to thwart the count’s intentions, which swiftly becomes a widening web of machinations and mishegoss snaring a larger cast of characters.
While the original play was incontrovertibly critical of the ruling class—Beaumarchais wrote it just before the French revolution, which he supported—the opera cares less about class warfare and more about love. Santa Fe’s production, however, splits the difference. According to the opera’s press materials, French director and costume designer Laurent Pelly took inspiration for both elements from Jean Renoir’s La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), itself inspired by The Marriage of Figaro, which is set in another tumultuous period of societal change: the late 1930s. To that end, the lower classes in this production wear only black and white, whereas the count and countess don colorful outfits—with the countess’ fuchsia dressing gown playing a particularly key role when Countess Almaviva (soprano Vanessa Vasquez) and Susanna change outfits in one of the later hijinks. The count’s castle is a five-part black and white modular construction, with much of its windows and bricks rendered as drawings. The house itself also moves, changes shape, becoming more disordered as the opera reaches its crisis action and resolution.
This more meditative and less raucous approach (although there are plenty of funny moments throughout the production, particularly courtesy of the scene-stealing mezzo-soprano Megan Marino as the count’s lovesick and mischievous page Cherubino), feels particularly suited to our particular time.
The Santa Fe Opera’s opening night last weekend was a return after a missed season due to COVID-19, and the audience in the theater who stood in standing ovation at its end all wore masks in a theater where some seats were cordoned off to allow for social distancing, while others watched a simulcast from their cars in a new initiative the opera introduced this season. In another sign of the times, director Pelly was unable to come to Santa Fe due to the current international travel restrictions, so Laurie Feldman directed his concept, whereas Brownlee stepped in for British baritone Ashley Riches, who was similarly unable to come to the US.
Such an environment might seem like a lot of pressure for the singers and musicians performing the first night, but if anything, the music and voices—many performing on the stage for the first time—all rose (some quite high) to the occasion. Standouts included Vasquez’s countess, who rendered her character’s suffering from her husband infidelity and willingness to forgive him with pained and believable dignity.
Fang is particularly wonderful in the role of Susanna (which she sang previously for the Dutch National Opera), with a particular high point when she disguises herself as the countess, in bearing and voice, to sing her “rose” aria in Act IV, “Deh vieni non tardar,” declaring her love for Figaro, and also signaling the dreams she has of a transformed situation and world—a dream borne out soon as the long day finally ends in reconciliations.
8:30 pm, July 14 (sold out), July 23
8 pm, Aug. 3, 10, 14, 18, 21, 24, 27
Limited tickets available with dynamic pricing ranging from $36-$300s
Simulcast tickets range in price from $100 to $125 per vehicle.