Washington National Opera ended last season with a very successful mounting of Wagner’s Ring Cycle. It began its 2016-17 season on a very different note, with Mozart’s ever-pleasing The Marriage of Figaro. With the many glories of the score and the easy butts of class and marital comedy, it is hard not to be pleased by a Figaro performance, although tonight’s did not sparkle as much as it might have. Thinking back to the overture – that opening gambit of brilliance and delight – it did set something of a lackluster tone over the whole. Under the baton of James Gaffigan, making his debut for WNO, it was rendered somewhat timidly, without much in the way of dramatic execution, and suffered from a loss of clarity in the running quavers.

Joshua Hopkins (Count Almaviva), Lisette Oropesa (Susanna) and Amanda Majeski (Countess Almaviva) © Scott Suchman for WNO
Joshua Hopkins (Count Almaviva), Lisette Oropesa (Susanna) and Amanda Majeski (Countess Almaviva)
© Scott Suchman for WNO

Peter Kazaras’ production is traditional with all the trappings of 18th-century aristocratic life: parquet floors, pillars, silk stockings, cravats, preposterous farthingales and livered servants aplenty, although the loud, occasionally garish costumes, courtesy of Myung Hee Cho, added a particular twist. They were, like them or not, hard to ignore. The Countess’ Barbie pink gown, for instance, was almost certainly anachronistic in a world where chemical dyes were unknown. But that is the historian’s quibble. At the upper-end of the desperate housewife brigade, perhaps Barbie-pink was only fitting. In any case, if you like candy-coloured excess against neutral backgrounds, then you would have no fault to find.

The most convincing singing of the night came from Amanda Majeski, making her WNO debut as the wronged wife of the Count. She spun clear and beautiful melodies, with sensitive gradations of volume. Lisette Oropesa, also making her debut, was a spirited Susanna, and her voice warmed up nicely into her role. Alexsandra Romano was fluty as Cherubino, although her vocal wavers, especially initially, were slightly excessive. Still she played the callow youth with definite charm.

Amanda Majeski (Countess Almaviva) © Scott Suchman for WNO
Amanda Majeski (Countess Almaviva)
© Scott Suchman for WNO

Neither of the chief male roles – Figaro (Ryan McKinny) or the Count (Joshua Hopkins) had luxuriantly big voices, although their characters were well-drawn throughout. Seducer and schemer, master and manservant, they both came across most convincingly. An example, though, where volume became an issue was in Figaro’s aria of wry exhortation to Cherubino (Non più andrai), where an onstage scene-change, however deft, detracted attention away from that gorgeous Mozartian melody, especially given that McKinny's baritone was not the voice to dominate over proceedings in the first place.

Although no voice, apart from perhaps Majeski’s, was outstandingly gorgeous, and we certainly weren’t at the luxury end of Mozart performance, there were strong moments where things came together. The high-point, both dramatically and vocally, came at the end of the second act. When properly done – and it was properly done in Kazaras’ interpretation – this can be something of a farcical tour de force. Singing alongside and against each other as they all pursue their various agendas, the marital duet of Count and Countess becomes a trio, then a quartet with the addition of Susanna first, then Figaro, and finally an octet, with Dr Bartolo (Valeriano Lanchas), Marcellina (Elizabeth Bishop), Don Basilio (Keith Jameson) and the gardener (Timothy Bruno) added in for good measure. Good measure indeed. This whole scene was richly comic, brilliantly choreographed and well-sung as an ensemble.

Ariana Wehr (Barbarina), Ryan McKinny (Figaro) and Elizabeth Bishop (Marcellina) © Scott Suchman for WNO
Ariana Wehr (Barbarina), Ryan McKinny (Figaro) and Elizabeth Bishop (Marcellina)
© Scott Suchman for WNO

After this, the last act seemed to drag. I don’t think it was the fault of the acting which, bar a few moments of over-slain buffoonery (and why not lay it on as thickly as you want in opera buffa? Nobody is going to mind, much at least), was decent, although perhaps the choreography wasn’t quite as deft here in presenting all the tangled webs of deception.

Not a poor performance by any means, even if it wasn’t glorious. In a key respect, it could be regarded as a genuine success. Opera buffa ideally makes an audience chuckle, and they did, many a time, delightedly so.