There are lots of obstacles that might keep you at home listening to favorite performances on your music system instead of venturing out to an opera house or a concert hall. Price is one of the big ones, but transportation, cold weather, exhaustion at the end of the workday, uncomfortable theater seats, and annoying fellow audience members might also enter into the calculation. Yet if a performance is good enough, it will transcend all that and make you very glad indeed that you came out.
A couple of weeks ago I was sitting in a tiny New York living room listening to a much-loved performance of The Marriage of Figaro on my tiny iPod. As I listened, I leafed through the pages of that week’s New Yorker and noticed that a revival of the Richard Eyre production of Le Nozze di Figaro was being performed at the Metropolitan Opera that very week. I saw that it featured Luca Pisaroni, whom I have loved in other Mozart operas, as the Count, and though I didn’t recognize any of the other names, I decided to grab a ticket for three nights later.
As it turned out, Pisaroni was the least of it (though he was very good, and so was the Figaro, a singer I’d never heard before named Adam Plachetka). This production turned out to star the women, as seems fitting for a plot whose twists all depend on female intelligence. One after another, the sopranos and mezzo-sopranos came out and wowed the audience, until we could barely believe our luck at the combination of singing talent and persuasive acting (supported, as all such performances must be, by the sensitive orchestra and its conductor, who was in this case the brilliant Harry Bicket). Susanna, the key figure in the plot—since she is not only Figaro’s bride, but also the object of the Count’s predatory lust and the deviser of the plot that defeats him—was performed by the Met newcomer Christiane Karg, whose lively intelligence and assertive physical presence was reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich. The Countess, sung by Rachel Willis-Sørensen, had one of the most meltingly knock-out voices I’ve ever heard in the part, which made the Count’s cruel treatment of her all the more affecting. And Cherubino—always my favorite, if the role is properly done—was endearingly played by Serena Malfi, whose boyish gestures evoked the sweetness of Harpo Marx (though obviously without his muteness). Even the bit parts like Marcellina (sung by Katarina Leoson) and Barbarina (the very animated Hyesang Park) were beautifully done. The whole set-up made it seem as if the world of this opera was secretly governed by the women, even as the men believed they had the upper hand.
It is an ugly plot, as Anthony Tommasini pointed out in his review, and particularly so when one is thinking constantly about the issue of sexual harassment, as people are these days. But simply representing a lascivious seigneur attempting to claim his ancestral droit does not in itself constitute ugliness. It is the game-like manner in which the subject is treated—and especially the emotional cruelty perpetrated by almost all the characters on their actual and potential sexual partners—that makes this opera so disturbing. I am thinking particularly of the scene in which Susanna, knowing that Figaro has come out to spy on her, pretends she is meeting a lover just to get back at him; for me, this was the most viscerally painful moment in the whole evening, given the way Eyre had directed it. And in this respect Nozze di Figaro is not unlike the composer’s other major operas. Cruelty, and especially sexual cruelty, seems to be Mozart’s great theme. That he made light of it, for the most part—except when he resorted to excessive heaviness, as he did in Don Giovanni—is one aspect of the problem; and that his wondrously seductive music tempts us to make light of it is another.
Still, I wouldn’t have it otherwise. It is the plots that make his operas so distressing, but anyone who wishes they could get just the music without the painful plot should try going to a performance of La Finta Giardiniera, composed when he was just eighteen. The music is recognizably Mozartean and has many lovely bits, but the plot, to the extent it exists, is a boring mess. After watching a very intelligently directed performance of this embryonic opera at Juilliard last month, I began to think for the first time that perhaps Lorenzo Da Ponte was right. Da Ponte claimed in his Memoirs that it was he, with his brilliant librettos, who really made Mozart’s reputation, and I have always treated this as an idle boast (comparable, for instance, to his numerous tall tales about how many beautiful ladies he left in his wake as he fled town with their fathers’ ducats). But now, having seen what Mozart did before he met Da Ponte, I have come to a new respect for the librettist. Better to have a cruel plot than none at all, because at least it gives us something to react against—and, in the hands of the proper director, something to think about as well.