The buzz around Seattle Opera's new Le nozze di Figaro is that it offers audiences here their first chance to see company chief Aidan Lang in his guise as stage director. This production originated to much acclaim in 2010 at New Zealand Opera, which Lang helmed until 2013. The current season is his second since succeeding Speight Jenkins as general director at Seattle Opera. It's a delightfully engaging take on familiar Figaro: crisp, vividly paced, spiced with youthful charm, visually handsome and original – and culminating in a luminously staged ensemble that does justice to Mozart's vision of reconcilation.

Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna) © Jacob Lucas
Shenyang (Figaro) and Nuccia Focile (Susanna)
© Jacob Lucas

Lang is not shy about playing up the farcical elements but manages to drop hints along the way that something more is at stake than the machinations of a sex comedy and Count Almaviva's comeuppance. As Bartolo crows his vengeance aria in the first act, servants preparing a meal punctuate the music and chop at the meat with gusto. Later, in Alamaviva's own counterpart aria of vengeance, Lang has the Count vent his anger by viciously kicking one of the female servants who have been washing the walls while he sings.

If that gesture seemed a bit heavy-handed, it's because Lang and his cast went to such lengths to humanise these characters, to draw out the vulnerabilities beneath the farce. The outstanding performances of the opening-night cast came from the aristo couple. Morgan Smith's warm-voiced Almaviva was intensely likeable and obviously still in love with his wife but frustrated by his inability to control the chaos around him... including that caused by his own libido. Lang put his frisky chemistry with the Countess on display, making it believable that reconciliation could occur – and be desired – in the denouement.

Bernarda Bobro (The Countess) © Philip Newton
Bernarda Bobro (The Countess)
© Philip Newton

Slovenian soprano Bernarda Bobro made a spectacular company debut as the Countess. Her two arias became the opera's emotional centres, showing off her ability to shape and spin a phrase with ravishing, Mozartean perfection. Bobro projected a Rosina unhampered by self-pity, still young enough to hope for the restoration of love. 

The servant couple, by contrast, unfortunately lacked a similar charge. Nuccia Focile's Susanna took some time to establish a clear vocal character. Her first scenes were overstated, though she proved winning in her exchanges with the Countess and delivered a rapturously beautiful “Deh vieni, non tardar”. Despite efforts to bill Chinese bass Shenyang a "superstar", his Seattle Opera debut as Figaro was distinctly underwhelming. His “Se vuol ballare”, for example, was solid musically but sounded characterless, barely hinting at defiance. Curiously, Shenyang's booming voice and imposing physical presence failed to leave a lasting impression. 

Karin Mushegain delivered a charming, imaginatively sung Cherubino, with a bit more attention than usual to his relationship with a visibly impregnated Barbarina (a perky Amanda Opuszynski). Margaret Gawrysiak (Marcellina), Arthur Woodley (Bartolo), and Steven Cole (Basilio) made a hilarious ensemble of plotters within the ensemble.

Another big plus came from Gary Thor Wedow's alert, vividly shaped conducting. From the Overture he set a tone for sprightly, flexible tempi that were vividly in sync with Lang's stage sensibility. Wedow allowed us to revel in the variety of Mozart's score, from lightning flashes of wit to Sturm und Drang fulminations.

<i>Le nozze di Figaro</i> at Seattle Opera © Jacob Lucas
Le nozze di Figaro at Seattle Opera
© Jacob Lucas

The work of Lang's design colleagues also meshed harmoniously with his aim to clear a path of theatrical clarity through the glorious entanglements of the opera's narrative. The wood-panel walls and doors of Robin Rawstone's set slid back and forth with Age of Enlightenment geometrical precision to continually reconfigure the space, evocatively enhanced by Duane Schuler's splendid lighting.

In the opening scene we were shown a tight compartment, claustrophobic and confined – the space allotted by Count Almaviva to his soon-to-be-wed servants. When we encountered his own master bedroom in Act II, the walls drew aside to reveal a vast, light-filled space, dominated by an eye-like window keeping watch over the action. The same style wood-frame bed appeared adrift upstage. 

Initially I found puzzling the lack of luxury, of paintings and other palatial trappings. (Had the Almavivas acquired a taste for Shaker simplicity?) Other settings were as austere as a cloister passageway. But it sank in that Lang and his team kept the signifiers clean and minimal to fasten attention on the human interactions. The palace comprised the same elements of absurdly tall doors and high ceilings for servants and rulers alike. What changed were the proportions: architecture as class destiny.

Elizabeth Whiting's costumes, blending period dress and denim, likewise used colours to underscore and suggest relationships with cunning symmetry. Seeing the Countess trade her formal attire for Susanna's cheerful outfit in the final scene brought home the realisation (already hinted in the exchanges of Act II) that Mozart and Da Ponte (and Beaumarchais) intuit history gravitating toward the break with confined roles, even if not necessarily with the accompanying violence lying in store a few years into the future. 

***11