From the earliest moments of Richard Eyre's vibrant new production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera, you know you're in for a ride. Eyre has staged the famously energetic overture (usually just a showcase for the orchestra and an opportunity for stragglers to take their seats): A half-naked young servant runs center stage to quickly don her bra. A drowsy and satisfied count, clad only in a loose red robe, follows. This sets the pace for a wild and sexy night of comic opera that never abets, much to the delight of the audience.
The fact that Figaro, which premiered in 1786, keeps audiences in stitches over two centuries later is a testament not only to the everlasting life in Mozart's score and the comic genius of Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto, but to the continued resonance of the Beaumarchais play on which it was based.
The story takes place on the outskirts of Seville in the manor of Count Almaviva (Peter Mattei). The Count has granted his servant Figaro (Ildar Abdrazakov) and his fiancée, Susanna (Marlis Petersen), a room in a prime location of the house. Susanna suspects this is only to keep her close at hand. As exhibited from the overture, the Count has every intention of exercising his "feudal right" to sleep with his servants. Making matters more complicated, Figaro owes a great deal of money to Marcellina (Susanne Mentzer). She is pressing him to either pay off the debt or marry her (her real hope).
Meanwhile, the Countess (Amanda Majeski) despairs: Her husband only wants to sleep with young maids, yet he is extremely jealous of her every interaction with other men, especially the randy adolescent Cherubino (Isabel Leonard, looking quite handsome in this pants role). She plots to win the Count back with a harebrained scheme that would make even Lucy and Ethel facepalm.
Considering the supreme comic potential of the story, Eyre has wisely staged the first two acts as a farce, with plenty of door-slamming and mistaken identity. This reaches its zenith in a second-act bedroom scene, in which the Count (suspecting his wife is hiding a man in her closet) attempts to pry the door open. His tool chest clatters as the operatic nobility engage in frantic recitative.
Hiding behind a thin floor lamp and contorting her face during this scene, Petersen has the comic timing and physical dexterity of Lucille Ball. Her voice is equally expressive, capable of making us laugh or cry. Similarly, Majeski brings a melancholic longing glazed with a layer of hope to the Countess. Her phrasing feels effortless and natural. The two women come together in a shimmering "Sull'aria," their voices seamlessly blending, breaking away, and then converging again. It's a magical moment of exquisite texture and near-perfect dynamics.
Approaching pianissimo, Leonard delivers a deeply personal, almost secret "Voi che sapete." None of the words are lost as she convincingly captures the part of a lovesick young man. Abdrazakov's "Se vuol ballare" (about his plans to outwit the Count) is colored by a muted machismo, while his "Non più andrai" (sending Cherubino off to the army) is full of sarcastic bombast. It's a real showstopper.
Much of the credit should be given to the expertise of Maestro James Levine, who conducted his 69th performance of Figaro the night I attended. He rises out of the pit at the top of the show, arms extended like Evita greeting the peasantry, and shoots a thumbs-up at the family circle before diving into a brisk overture, energetic and alive. He conducts a dynamically bold Figaro that showcases every one of Mozart's mocking arpeggios and flirtatious trills while accentuating the dramatic thrust of the opera.
Eyre has staged this Figaro in 1930s Spain, a setting in which he's previously found success with his bloody and immediate Carmen. Rob Howell's metallic set is constructed almost completely of intricate Moorish lattice. The Swiss cheese walls offer glimpses of the high jinks in this country estate. The central unit rotates, bringing the action of every room downstage.
The set is lit by hanging Andalusian lanterns that warmly glow in the darkness. Paule Constable's naturalistic lighting radiates beautifully through the Countess' bedroom window. Further upstage, a complex Venn diagram of overlapping circles cut open at sharp points suggests barbed wire, hinting at the looming danger beyond the manor. Cherubino's reluctance to join the army in Seville takes on a new urgency as this frothy sex farce dances on the precipice of the Spanish Civil War.
That is just one of the many little revelations of Eyre's Figaro, in which every choice raises the stakes or pushes the story forward. Even the grand stage pictures that we've come to expect at the Met are given a purpose beyond aesthetics: The guests at Figaro-Susanna pose for a photograph. The stage fades to black and white with the flash of the bulb and the whole party rotates away to an inconclusive note, letting us know that we have another act left. Eyre's production is the perfect execution of stage spectacle in the employ of rigorous musical storytelling.