Lyric Opera team anticipates a joyous opening with new production of “Figaro”

Tue Sep 22, 2015 at 12:52 pm

By Wynne Delacoma

Director Barbara Gaines at a rehearsal for the Lyric Opera's new production of "The Marriage of Figaro. "Photo: Andrew Cioffi
Director Barbara Gaines at a rehearsal for Lyric Opera’s season-opening production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Barbara Gaines’ first venture into directing opera was Verdi’s Macbeth, which opened Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2010-11 season. It was a logical choice for the seasoned stage director who founded Chicago Shakespeare Theater in 1987 and nurtured it into an internationally acclaimed crown jewel of Chicago’s vibrant theater scene. With Thomas Hampson and Nadja Michael as Shakespeare’s vile couple, Gaines’ staging gave full vent to an opera boiling over with lust for blood, power and vengeance.

Beginning Saturday night Gaines follows up at Lyric with something entirely different, Mozart’s comic masterpiece, Le nozze di Figaro. And the director says she is happy to leave Verdi’s darkness behind and bask in Mozartean sunshine.

“With Macbeth, you’re really in a deep and horrific tragedy, and that takes a toll on your soul,’’ said Gaines during a rehearsal break backstage at the Civic Opera House earlier this month. Wearing skinny grey jeans, sipping a murky, purplish juice concoction, she was a small bundle of dynamic energy. “You have to jump into that pool of murder and hopelessness and live in it. You cannot live in any other world while you are directing something like that. So that’s hard. It’s very difficult for the performers especially, and for everybody in the [rehearsal] room because it hurts. When you do it well, it really should hurt.”

In contrast, Gaines sees The Marriage of Figaro as a merry romp.

“It’s so joyous,” she said. “It’s an absolute antithesis of feeling in the room. One room was depressed and excruciating because you’re dealing with murder—even of children–and madness, a marriage that fails. So many people die; there’s so much heartache.

“And here, we don’t stop laughing. There’s joy, celebration. Sure, there’s jealousy. Yes, there’s anguish because you think your lover or your husband is fooling around, and, in this case, they are. But on the other hand, the music is a celebration of life. We are all celebrating. We’re celebrating Mozart and being forgiven for our frailties, and we are celebrating laughter.”

Composed in 1786, Mozart’s adaptation of one of Beaumarchais’ popular Figaro plays unfolds in a single, madcap day in 18th century Seville. But opera directors update and change locales with clear consciences these days, and audiences have seen recent Figaro productions set in 1930s Spain (Metropolitan Opera), 1950s Hollywood (Los Angeles Opera) and as a kind of musical Upstairs, Downstairs (Salzburg Festival). Some productions emphasize the conflict between the clever servant, Figaro, who dares to push back against the aristocratic entitlements of his boss, Count Almaviva. This was a revolutionary notion in the 1780s, but Gaines isn’t much interested in the opera’s undercurrent of class warfare.

“It will be a whimsical take on this opera,” she said, her voice taking on a steely resolve. “It’s not dark, dreary. It has nothing to do with, ‘Oh, poor us, our feudal lord.’ This has to do with a wandering husband [Count Almaviva] who will be properly punished by the women [his wife, the Countess, and Susanna, Figaro’s betrothed] who are basically smarter than he is.

“It’s very much like Shakespeare’s comedies; the women are smarter than the men, and usually things work out fine. In Figaro, things will work out. Whether the Count continues as a wandering husband, he probably does. But [he and Countess] have a new understanding, which isn’t necessarily bad. It’s their dance; every couple has their own dance.’’

The opera’s whimsy will be reinforced by costumes by Susan Mickey, a frequent Gaines collaborator who is making her Lyric debut.

“The set design [an unadorned, white background by James Noone that curves from the top of the rear stage toward the audience] is so simple,” said Gaines. “I needed the costumes to give it the exuberance and color and life that the music makes us feel. I asked Susan for 1786 designs, but runway designs—completely over the top. It’s like Alexander McQueen, Versace, all extreme 1786. It’s fun—for the men, for the women—the fabric, the extreme silhouette; you want to be in that world.”

Speaking of over the top, consider the Countess’s bedroom, the setting of the opera’s Act II. Beds are serious matters in The Marriage of Figaro, which opens with Figaro measuring the room that he and Susanna will soon share as husband and wife. Counting off the measurements, he’s making sure the room is big enough for their conjugal bed.

“With the exception of Cherubino, in this production there are no virgins,” said Gaines with a sly smile. “The Countess’s bed, which the entire Act II is played on, is 25 feet wide. This opera is about a bed; who are you sleeping with and are you happy? We’re celebrating sex and love and the need for each other.”

Hungarian conductor Henrik Nanasi, head of Berlin’s Komische Opera, makes his U. S. debut with Lyric’s Figaro, and the cast includes a mix of familiar faces—Amanda Majeski and Luca Pisaroni (the Countess and Count)—and newcomers to Lyric: German soprano Christiane Karg (Susanna) and Czech bass-baritone Adam Plachetka (Figaro).

Gaines called their collaboration during rehearsals “heavenly.”

“I have a number of friends who direct opera who have told me nothing but nightmare stories,” she said. “Every time I’m in that [rehearsal] room, I feel like I’m at the Ritz. They’re exquisite professionals, they know their roles and they are open to my ideas. We don’t use all of their ideas, we don’t use all of my ideas. But we’re a good collaborative team.”

“It’s so enjoyable,’’ said Nanasi. “I don’t consider myself an old man,” he said with an ebullient laugh (he was born in 1975), “but I have worked with so many different styles of directors. And it’s always a big question, how the collaboration will be between stage director and conductor. But I never really understand why there must be a question. We both want the same thing—a great production and to entertain the audience. If you’re really ready to talk to each other from the very beginning, it makes things so much easier. With Barbara, it was, from the start, good collaboration and communication.”

Nanasi shares Gaines’ focus on Mozart’s characters as vibrant human beings.

“We both feel the same way about Mozart’s music and Figaro,” he said. “The main thing about Mozart’s music is that it’s about human beings and human life. Of course, you have always so much respect for these giants like Bach, Mozart, Beethoven. But I always say, you shouldn’t have too much respect. Of course they were geniuses. But, on the other hand, their music is about us. We see ourselves in their music; we see our own feelings, our passions, our pleasure and sadness.”

Adam Plachetka (Figaro) rehearses with Barbara Gaines at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi
Adam Plachetka (Figaro) rehearses with Barbara Gaines at Lyric Opera. Photo: Andrew Cioffi

Plachetka’s repertoire ranges from Bach and Handel through bel canto to Puccini. (He appeared as a soloist in Bach’s B-Minor Mass with Riccardo Muti and the Chicago Symphony at Symphony Center in 2013.) But this season Figaro looms exceptionally large for him. Plachetka sang the title role at the Salzburg Festival (with Pisaroni as the Count) in August and repeats it this coming January with the Houston Grand Opera. Shortly after wrapping up his Lyric engagement, he sings three Figaro performances at the Vienna State Opera, where he is an ensemble member, Rather than the title role, however, he will sing Count Almaviva.

“I’ve done more Figaros than Counts,’’ said Plachetka. “Figaro is better from the acting point of view, and Almaviva is more fun to sing. This was a special situation. Even though I’ve done Figaro a lot, I’ve never done so many Figaros in one season. Vienna asked me last; they asked if I could do Figaro. I said I would do the opera, but if I did [just another] Figaro, I would go insane. It was my request, to refresh myself, to have a change.”

Karg, an ensemble member at Frankfurt Opera, has recorded a wide range of repertoire, from Handel to works by Debussy and Poulenc, Wolf and Berg. But she trained at Salzburg’s Mozarteum, and Mozart’s music captivated her at a young age.

“I always wanted to be an opera singer, from when I was 5,” said Karg. Her father, an avid opera fan, took her to the opera, including performances at Bayreuth, site of the legendary annual Wagner Festival that was near their home. “For me, it was never musicals, never jazz, never pop singing. It was opera–the staging, the voices, everything all together.”

As a child, the first opera she fell in love with was Mozart’s The Magic Flute.

“I sang Sarastro,” Karg said with a proud, mischievous smile, referring to the imposing high priest usually sung by the biggest bass voice an opera house can muster.  “I sang Pamina, I sang the Queen of the Night, I sang Papagena.

“For me, Mozart is still the basis of my repertoire,” she said, though its’s safe bet that Sarastro is not on her list of current roles. “Mozart is the key to so many things,” she said, turning serious. “There is a journey for every voice. You begin with Barbarina [a young servant girl in Figaro] and maybe in 20 years, you end up with Donna Elvira [a leading role in Don Giovanni]. It cleans the voice because it requires really good technique. You cannot hide in this music.’’

Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro opens the Lyric Opera season 5 p.m. Saturday and runs through October 24.

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