Friday, September 24, 2010

San Francisco Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro

September 21, 2010

There was a bit of celebrating in San Francisco, as British stage director John Copley opened his 30th production with the company and received the San Francisco Opera Medal. The night's performance served up all the small, crafty touches that a veteran stage director brings, but the tremendous ensemble acting came at the price of some musicality.

The main cuplrit was soprano Danielle de Niese, whose voice is entirely too heavy for Susanna. de Niese is excellent at comedy, and has also captured the marinara tang of Susanna's recitatives, but she exacerbated the tonality problem by playing Susanna's brightest musical moment, the final-act "Deh vieni non tardar," for an overpassionate joke on her jealous husband. (Heidi Stober, who displayed a much more Susanna-ish voice in SFO's Werther, will play the role October 10, 16 and 22.)

Somewhere in-between is soprano Ellie Dehn, who performed the Countess with lovingly shaped lines (particularly in "Porgi Amor") but lacks the tonal energy of a Ruth Ann Swenson. Dehn acted the role with a poignant grace, particularly in the final pardon of her philandering husband.

And then there's mezzo Michele Losier, who as Cherubino delivers the dramatic/musical package that a true Nozzephile is looking for. Losier is the most convincingly male Cherubino I've seen (with her black hair and white trousers looking disarmingly like Giants baseball pitcher Tim Lincecum), and plays the physical comedy beautifully. Her tone is strong and focused, and she does a marvelous job of deploying it. Her "Voi che sapete" was strikingly understated, and her handling of the final ritard of "Non so piu" - one of the most touching moments in the opera - is divine.

As our Figaro, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni is a raucous ball of energy. I love the way he ruthlessly batters Cherubino during "Non piu andrai," and his delivery of the gender-based battle cry "Aprite un po quegl'occhi" is hilarious. Baritone Lucas Meacham, meanwhile, applies the perfect balance of lechery and frustration to the Count.

The minor roles are just as tasty. Tenor Greg Fedderly adds some likeable gags (including some, ah, pimple maintenance) to Basilio, a character who seems to get more gay by the decade. Fedderly also has a lovely voice, a quality that doesn't always come through in comic roles. Bass-baritone John del Carlo has tremendous fun with Dr. Bartolo's patter-gags, while mezzo Catherine Cook as Marcellina seems to be channeling Mrs. Slocombe from British TV's "Are You Being Served?" The combination of the two makes for the most hilarious parental-revelation scene I've ever witnessed.

Nicola Luisotti led the orchestra in the old-school Mozartean style, playing the harpsichord continuo from the podium. His improvised additions provided a lively commentary on the recitative passages, an element already distinguished by the naturalistic, near-dialogue delivery of de Niese and Pisaroni. Watching Luisotti conduct sans baton was a revelation in itself. The 1982 set by Zack Brown is most notable for its gorgeous garden scene, which is just the place you'd like to be on a warm summer night at the end of a long, crazy day.

Through Oct. 22 at War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Avenue, San Francisco. $20-$360, 415/864-3330.

SFO trivia: In 1950, Renata Tebaldi sang the Countess, but only on the company tour, in Fresno. It was the only Mozart role Tebaldi ever performed in the United States.

Image: Danielle de Niese, Lucas Meacham and Michele Losier. Photo by Cory Weaver.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic. His novel, "Operaville," will be released this winter, with a companion CD of arias by soprano Barbara Divis. Read Michael's new counterculture comedy, "The Monkey Tribe," available at


MissP said...

What planet are you from? Were you there when the audience rose to their feet when Ms. De Niese took her bow. You are obviously a Danielle de Niese hater or a jealous failed colleague. said...

I could have sworn I was hearing a pianoforte rather than a harpsichord?

Michael J. Vaughn said...

I was a little puzzled on the instrument, too. They may have listed harpsichord in the program. Wouldn't be the first time I got burned. Sadly, I recycled my program so I can't check.

I believe my criticism of de Niese was entirely in casting. As I said, her comedy was superb. But you shouldn't sing Susanna if you don't have the right voice. FYI I'm a former choir singer who never attempted opera and now sings jazz. So scratch the jealousy. And no critic worth reading would base his review on audience reaction. That's cowardice. However, I am from the planet NekTar in the Smeltar Region;-)

Michael J. Vaughn said...

Aha! Just found it - in the sfo press dept. - pianoforte. Mea culpa, etc.