Memorable Mozart singing let down by subpar conducting

By Lawrence A. Johnson

SANTA FE. Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is operatic titanium, an indestructible three hours of some of the finest music every put to paper, spiced by Lorenzo da Ponte’s witty, trenchant libretto on love, sex and the eternal folly of the human heart.

There were moments Tuesday night when the quality of singing and depth of characterization had one thinking this production was going to be the Figaro of a lifetime. And while the end result proved an enjoyable performance, the musical direction was not on the same level, with scrappy playing and a brusque, superficial view of the score that often undermined the artistry on stage.

Santa Fe Opera’s production of Mozart’s comedy has a considerable amount going for it, namely a young group of principals blessed with good looks as well as fine voices. Designer Paul Brown supplies enough inpidual touches—most notably the bed of flowers that acts as visual leitmotiv—to enliven a traditional staging.

The good news is that the production showcases a trio of extraordinary young singers who appear born to play these roles. Isabel Leonard in particular virtually redefines the part of Cherubino for the 21st century. Tall with an apt androgynous beauty, the New York mezzo was genuinely funny in the comedy and wholly believable as a gangling adolescent page. Her refined vocalism was remarkable, with Voi che sapete so beautifully shaded it seemed entirely plausible that the countess could be momentarily smitten. Most strikingly, Leonard conveyed the melancholy at the heart of Cherubino’s amorous instincts subtly without exaggeration.

Mariusz Kwiecien is the most familiar name in the cast and, his tightly coiled intensity made him a Count to be reckoned with. The Polish baritone commanded the stage, his dark incisive tone and saturnine persona ideal for the suspicious hypocritical Count. Kwiecien’s Act 3 aria was delivered with flexibility and conviction, and his elegant presence had a lurking danger and explosive quality that made the threat of violence seem very real.

The towering, handsome Luca Pisaroni proved an ideal Figaro, the Italian bass-baritone’s weighty instrument, ease of production and idiomatic legato fitting the role of the wily servant like a well-tailored glove.

If not quite as striking as their costars, Elizabeth Watts made a spunky Susanna, her bright soprano contributing to a lovely Deh vieni non tardar. As the Countess, Susanna Phillips lacks regal bearing, though her attractive voice made for a sensitively sung Dove sono. The comic comprimario parts were well taken, though Gwynne Howell’s once-imposing bass is now barely up to the brief patter role of Bartolo.

The principal drag on the performance—which took the standard Act 4 cuts—was the metrical conducting and lack of detail and flexibility from conductor Robert Tweten in the pit. Taking over for one evening from Kenneth Montgomery, Tweten’s baton consistently sacrificed refinement and polish, evident in ill-blended textures, sour wind tuning, loopy horns and moments of miscoordination with the singers.

Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro runs through August 22. Tickets are $25-$180. 505-986-5900; 800-280-4654.

[Pictured: Isabel Leonard as Cherubino and Luca Pisaroni as Figaro. Photo by Ken Howard for Santa Fe Opera.]

Posted in opera review, Performances

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Wed Aug 6, 2008
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