For the first time in four years, American conductor James Levine, welcomed by a huge ovation, was at the helm of the distinguished Metropolitan Opera Orchestra on opening night. It is the company’s 130th season and his 33rd time with season-opening honors. Director Richard Eyre’s brand new production of Mozart’s 1786 masterpiece, “Le nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro), was unveiled, updating the opera buffa’s setting to the 1930s. Both James Levine and Figaro and company were a huge hit with the glittering gala audience dressed to the nines and engaged in some serious crowd-watching.
The opera, of course, concerns Figaro’s wedding day. The valet of Count Almaviva, Figaro is betrothed to Susanna, maid to Countess Almaviva. The way to the altar has hurdles because the Almavivas’ housekeeper, Marcellina, has a legal claim to marry Figaro herself, though she is old enough to be his mother, and the count spends four acts trying to bed Susanna, claiming his feudal right, or “droit du seigneur.” Things haven’t been all that good lately in the Almaviva household, and the countess, aided by Figaro and Susanna, schemes to teach her noble husband a lesson.
This quartet of two sopranos, one baritone and a bass is unusual in Mozart operas. There’s hardly a tenor in sight. Yet, whenever the Met does Mozart, it goes all out seeking a cast of solid Mozarteans.
James Levine led the cast in a spirited reading of the score, from the famous overture with its nervous ebullience through the sublime finale. Tempos were comfortably brisk. The orchestra tended to cover the soloists in the Act II finale, but perfect balance prevailed elsewhere.
The show rightly belongs to Figaro and Susanna, and in these roles Ildar Abdrazakov and Marlis Petersen gave committed performances, from the hyperactivity of Acts I and II, to the more serious goings-on of the opera’s second half. They had an organic collaboration, seemingly moving and acting as one. Even their arias, particularly those in Act IV, which were received by enthusiastic acclaim, arose seamlessly from the action.
American soprano Amanda Majeski (debut) made a splash as the countess, who never loses her dignity despite the indignities she suffers from the count, from both his philandering and his rough treatment of her in Act II. Her voice has a solid middle and a lovely top. Initial nervousness during her entrance aria, “Porgi amor,” soon melted as she warmed to Act II’s tight ensemble. Act III’s “Dove sono” came out much more confidently, and the voice bloomed. Her final ovation was the most raucous, and she can now relax into the rest of the run of performances.
Peter Mattei struck an elegant figure as the count. Mozart is melded into his voice of burnished bronze, so natural is his projection, and his resonance is perfect whether during straight singing or while declaiming blustery passages of recitative.
Among the secondary characters, American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard as Cherubino, the count’s page, was convincing as the hormone-driven teenage boy in love with every woman he sees. She dispatched his two arias with gorgeous tone and natural feeling, swinging between the extremes of a now passionate, now reflective youth.
American mezzo-soprano Susanne Mentzer made her house role debut in this production as Marcellina. She is a veteran Cherubino herself—her 1989 Met debut role—which she has performed there 24 times. The Act III recognition septet with her discovery that she is indeed Figaro’s mother was beautifully sung, with spot-on harmonies, and was hilarious.
As Don Bartolo, American bass-baritone John Del Carlo’s first-act aria, “La vendetta,” provoked a rousing response from the audience. A shame, then, that his Act IV aria was cut. In Act IV Chinese soprano Ying Fang proved to be a bit of luxury casting, her ravishing “L’ho perduta, me meschina” (Poor little me, I’ve lost it) entirely too brief.
Excellent support and splendid vocals came from American talent as the minor characters: tenor Greg Fedderly (Don Basilio), bass-baritone Philip Cokorinos (Antonio), and tenor Scott Scully (Don Curzio).
Rob Howell designed handsome costumes and a clever set placed on a huge turntable. A quarter turn revealed a new scene, so scene changes were instantaneous, fluid, almost cinematic.
Glamorous stars were on hand. Actress Patricia Clarkson was being photographed by the press as we reached the red carpet. And fans snapped shots of sopranos Renée Fleming and Anna Netrebko on our way out.