Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro is an opera buffa that premiered in 1786. It has four acts, and it’s one of three renowned operas Mozart collaborated on with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. These are facts that are true of every production, but the essence that makes the opera great – hilarity intricately staged by comic artists who also sing some of Mozart’s most stunning arias effortlessly – is never a given. In this production, Houston Grand Opera just has the facts of Figaro on its side.

Heidi Stober (Susanna) and Adam Plachetka (Figaro) © Lynn Lane
Heidi Stober (Susanna) and Adam Plachetka (Figaro)
© Lynn Lane

A co-production of HGO and Glyndebourne Festival Opera, this version of Figaro tries to re-imagine Mozart in more contemporary terms. Many productions have done this well – Peter Sellars’ Trump Tower from 1988 comes immediately to mind, as well as the elegant upstairs-downstairs Figaro at the Salzburg Festival directed by Sven-Eric Bechtolf. The program notes claim this production is either set in “early-1970s Morocco, or perhaps a Moroccan/Moorish-inspired country estate in Spain,” and this uncertainty is part of a much larger problem of overall visual coherency.

The opening sequence as the scrim raised, with house staff lining up to greet a sparkling vintage car, bespoke of a Downton Abbey-style country estate. With a turn of the rotating stage, though, we were thrown into mosaic tiles with speculative furniture that evoked more of the Spanish theme. Set and costume designer Christopher Oram dresses characters in vaguely 1960s or 1970s garb, clothing that seems to allude to the period more than actually be from the period: muted blue bell bottoms with large polka dots that could be some kind of tie dye; flower power peasant dresses in mottled brown; silk capes, loosely fitted jump suits, platform heels, and even some go-go boots. In Act III, the wedding celebration ends with some variety of 70s rave lit by hot pink, lime green and highlighter yellow spotlights.

Ailyn Pérez (The Countess), Heidi Stober (Susanna) and Adam Plachetka (Figaro) © Lynn Lane
Ailyn Pérez (The Countess), Heidi Stober (Susanna) and Adam Plachetka (Figaro)
© Lynn Lane

Sometimes illness strikes a singer on opening night, and courageous scrambling makes the show go on. These things happen. It isn’t anyone’s fault. But it is was someone’s decision to replace baritone Joshua Hopkins, who was to sing the role of Count Almaviva, with both HGO Studio artist Ben Edquist and stage director Ian Rutherford, who walked the part while Edquist sang from the side. While Edquist did a brave job singing at the last minute, a rich tone vitalized with feeling, and Rutherford indeed walked and mouthed the parts, it was awkward visually and aurally. The aural unbalance was particularly painful in the many delicate duets and trios where intimacy between singers is so critical to the comedy.

The second-act trio between Susanna, the Countess, and the Count was a mess, but the disembodied voice from stage right was only partly to blame. The Countess has to sail up a scale to a C in a fantastic run of harmonic craft, and this was the beginning of the end for soprano Ailyn Pérez. Flat and heavy, Pérez’s voice is not suited for Mozart. She has chops, as she proved with a stunning Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello last season at HGO, but this time around she sounded overburdened, which was a real shame when it came to the Countess’ star aria “Dove sono.”

Heidi Stober (Susanna) and Adam Plachetka (Figaro) © Lynn Lane
Heidi Stober (Susanna) and Adam Plachetka (Figaro)
© Lynn Lane

Adam Plachetka (Figaro), Heidi Stober (Susanna), and Lauren Snouffer (Cherubino) held their own, given the circumstances, each with technical clarity and personality all well suited to Mozart. Bass Peixin Chen, as Doctor Bartolo, was the standout of the entire production. Animated and skilled, his presence on stage was like water in a drought. If Chen was the most remarkable singer, mezzo-soprano Catherine Cook (Marcellina) and soprano Pureum Jo (Barbarina) were less impressive. Cook’s voice never quite held a note, vibrato getting the better of her, and Jo’s ponderous voice (heard twice already in O Columbia and The Little Prince this season) continues to disappoint.

Whether it was Hopkin’s last-minute replacement or because Pérez missed an entrance, the ensemble suffered. Conductor Harry Bicket makes his debut with HGO in this production, and the overture he directed was pretty spot-on – delicate hand movements caught Mozart’s effortless turns and clean lines. But later the tempos staggered here and there, as if to catch up or wait for a singer. It didn’t hold together well.

Le nozze di Figaro is composed so well with such a clever libretto and such splendid arias that it’s easy to imagine it as a foolproof opera. I said as much before the performance began to a friend who replied, “Yes, but Mozart is so right he’s also very easy to get wrong”. This production proves that even Mozart’s best-laid plans can be undone.