Sir Peter Hall’s stellar production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” has been a regular visitor here since Lyric first premiered it back in 1987. For the first time, however, Hall himself did not make the trip to direct, and so Herbert Kellner took over the reigns, adding much freshness in the process. British conductor and English National Opera music director Edward Gardner was to have made his Lyric debut conducting these performances, but withdrew to be with his wife in England for the birth of their first child. Luckily, Sir Andrew Davis, who made his own Lyric debut with this original production twenty-three years ago, was on hand, and knows this score inside and out. Even the original choreographer, Kenneth von Heidecke, was brought in to stage the infamous wedding-dance scene that, as fans of “Amadeus” may recall, caused a stir with the emperor’s court because dance in opera had been banned. Of course, that was the least of the emperor’s problems with a work that was revolutionary in every sense, from its subject matter of servants besting aristocrats to Mozart’s musical treatment, which set in place a new musical-theater template that has lasted into our own day.
Cast lists that have sung this production read like a “who’s who” of the greatest singers of their respective generations, and this time around is no exception: this is as fine a “Figaro” as could be assembled anywhere in the world these days. Even so, what particularly distinguishes this incarnation is how well the cast blends together the distinct vocal sonorities that Mozart so carefully laid out as well as the superb acting of cast members in even the smallest of roles. Bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen makes a dashing Figaro who is not the usual glib hothead; Ketelson not only sings the role with aplomb, but brings depth to an often one-dimensional character. Soprano Danielle de Niese, the reigning Mozart soprano extraordinaire, is a sexy Susanna who not only sings rapturously but who brings layers of meaning to her every action. Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiechien brings smoothness of tone to the Count, and keeps him from becoming the usual buffoon, which makes all that happens to him so much more meaningful. Mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato makes a charming and energetic Cherubino, even if there are times you would like a darker timbre; Italian bass Andrea Silvestrelli nearly steals the opening act with his booming portrayal of Bartolo that also serves as one of the most effective bottom ends to Mozart’s glorious ensembles that you could hope to encounter.
Part of the top end, however, was noticeably weak, as supplied by German soprano Anne Schwanewilms whom, we were told, was suffering from a bronchial infection. Rather than allow her cover to go on, Schwanewilms insisted on performing, and the result was disastrous as she literally lost her voice mid-aria in Act III. She persisted on, but given that this had also happened earlier in the week, this is a classic case study in the harsh realities of cancellations and why they are sometimes necessary in the opera world. (Lyric so often pins entire productions on star power that it is extremely intolerant of cancellations and notoriously fired Luciano Pavarotti two decades ago for too many of them.) Imagine a Shakespearian actor who becomes hoarse and breaks character in the climax of a beloved soliloquy and you have a sense of how destructive a moment this was. Schwanewilms pointed to her chest and shrugged her shoulders as if, “What else can I do?” (You use the cover and recover: that’s what they are there for.) In Europe, the boos and the thrown fruit would have created chaos, but here, the audience politely applauded as if to reward her fortitude. (Dennis Polkow)
“The Marriage of Figaro” plays at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker, (312)332-2244, through March 27.