The 2012 Festival d’Aix-en-Provence began its four-week feast of opera and music with Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro—and could there be better a way? Nothing can beat the sublime company of Mozart, Da Ponte and Beaumarchais on a summer evening in the open-air Théâtre de l'Archevêché. (Not even a few drops of rain that added an extra fermata in the middle of the Act III sextet!) The premiere of this co-production with l'Opéra de Dijon boasted an outstanding line-up of soloists, including Kyle Ketelson in the title role and Patricia Petibon as Susanna. Jérémie Rhorer led his own period ensemble Le Cercle de l’Harmonie in the pit.

Malin Byström, Patricia Petibon, Kyle Ketelsen © Pascal Victor
Malin Byström, Patricia Petibon, Kyle Ketelsen
© Pascal Victor

More than two centuries after it first premiered in Vienna, hardly a moment passes today when Figaro is not being performed or at least heard in recording. And to think, a work with so many hits and sublime ensembles was penned in only six weeks! Much of Figaro’s success should be attributed to Lorenzo Da Ponte, who adapted Beaumarchais’ Le mariage de Figaro—the second installment a trilogy of plays infamous for its subversive stance on politics, class, and gender.

Director Richard Brunel’s journée de folie was set in a contemporary corporation with Almaviva as CEO, commenting upon the “let them eat cake” attitude of today’s economic elite. By placing the conflicts around the water cooler, the convoluted plot played out like prime-time news. One could easily see a Dominique Strauss-Kahn in Almaviva, who relentlessly pursues his wife’s personal assistant, Susanna, while simultaneously harassing the office receptionist, Barbarina.

Chantal Thomas’ sleek, rotating set became the literal wheel around which complicated webs of office intrigue were spun, and made excellent use of the venue’s limited wing and fly space. Costumer designer Axel Aust’s neutral palette of business attire for the entire cast underscored the opera’s theme that social hierarchies are more arbitrary than real. (One of the only colors onstage, in fact, was Petibon’s fiery hair.)

Lighting designer Dominique Borrini's most poetic effect was creating the Act IV garden with nothing more than shadows cast by the only standing tree in the beautiful palace courtyard. A nearly full moon even made a timely cameo above the proscenium during Susanna’s “Deh, vieni non tardar.”

In its premiere performance, this simple-yet-chic production featured above all a spectacular ensemble of soloists. Patricia Petibon gave the most satisfying performance all evening as Susanna, a role she debuted in 2006 at Opéra National de Lorraine. Few sopranos sing with as much sass and style as Petibon, requisite qualities to play what is one of the most beloved roles in all of opera. She was thoroughly committed from the moment she emerged on stage in a wedding veil trailing meter after meter of tulle, until the end of the opera.

Kate Lindsey’s performance as Cherubino, the bumbling, bra-sniffing office intern, was noteworthy. Other luxury castings included Mari Eriksmoen as Barbarina and Anna Maria Panzarella as Marcellina. It’s a shame the latter’s Act IV aria “Il capro e la capretta“ usually is and was omitted. Malin Byström eased into her role as the opera’s desperate housewife, the Contessa di Almaviva. Her well-known cavatina, “Porgi amor,” was a bit on the warbly and wooly side, though later she emerged as a dynamic participant in the ensembles. The chorus of Les Arts Florissants, which performs Figaro in repertory with Charpentier’s David et Jonathas, added to the vocal splendor on stage.

At the helm of the ship was Jérémie Rhorer, whose concert performances of the opera at Beaune International Baroque Music Festival and the Théatre des Champs-Élysées were highly acclaimed. The young conductor’s strongest skill interpreting this repertoire is his ability to hear the Baroque in Mozart. At times, however, the strings were a bit too stylish and might benefit from a bit more vibrato here and there. Special mention goes to the young pianoforte player Paolo Zanzu, who proved to be an incredibly deft and creative continuo player realizing what is a long and tiring score for a répétiteur of any age.

This delightful Mad Men-era Mozart production repeats throughout July at the Festival and will be broadcast live on 12 July at 21:30 on radio and in select open-air theaters.

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