Pleasures are few in Lyric Opera’s garish, charmless “Figaro”

Sun Sep 27, 2015 at 5:46 pm

By Lawrence A. Johnson

Christiane Karg and Luca Pisaroni in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's production of Mozart's "Le nozze di Figaro."
Christiane Karg and Luca Pisaroni in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro.” Photo: Michael Brosilow

One year ago, the Lyric Opera opened their season with an audacious, remarkably fresh new production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Directed by Robert Falls, the edgy, updated staging was faithful to the tale of the murderous libertine yet freshened it up in an imaginative way while always keeping Mozart’s music front and center.

The company was clearly hoping that lightning would strike again this season with another new Mozart production helmed by a noted stage director. Barbara Gaines of Chicago Shakespeare Theater made an impressive Lyric directing debut five years ago with a riveting take on Verdi’s Macbeth. What could go wrong with entrusting one of the great Mozart-da Ponte comedies to Gaines?

Unfortunately, almost everything. Lyric’s new production of Le nozze de Figaro, which opened Saturday night at the Civic Opera House, is about as dismal a misfire as Falls’ Giovanni was a roaring success. Crass, garish and charmless, it marks a low point in the company’s recent Mozart history and distinguished line of Figaros.

Intrusive added pantomime during the overture is invariably an ominous sign and so it proved. The Count chases a maid up the Civic Opera House aisle and onto the stage with the Countess in pursuit. That set the sophomoric tone for the evening.

Gaines brought dramatic sizzle and concentration to the homicidal Macbeths, yet the Shakespeare director seems completely at sea in Mozart comedy. Her production makes the mistake common to inexperienced Mozart directors that if everyone mugs outrageously that makes for a hilarious evening. She doesn’t seem to appreciate the fact that it is the timeless human romantic situations that provide the humor in the opera, not morphing the scenario into a live-action cartoon.

While Falls’ Giovanni never allowed the stage action to dominate Mozart’s music, Gaines’ frenetic high-jinks firmly push the singing into the background at the expense of constant sexual shtick. The Act 2 scene in the Countess’s room takes place on a massive bed, Cherubino sings “Non so piu” while groping Susanna and humping her from behind, and hands up skirts and frantic breast- and behind-grabbing dominate the lewd action.

Things are made worse by the awe-inspiring vulgarity of Susan Mickey’s garish costumes. In the first two acts the principals are all dressed in retina-searing primary colors with ludicrous exaggeration. Marcellina’s feathered getup looks like a Black Friday mark-down from The Lion King.

Colin Ure’s Captain Obvious surtitles were at their lowbrow worst. Does the company think Lyric audiences are too dumb to appreciate an accurate translation of Lorenzo da Ponte’s witty libretto unless Ure ladles on every possible colloquial vulgarism? Some examples: “sleazebag,” “What a bitch!” “This really screws me up.” “Don’t even go there” “The Count is pissed.” And so on. Oy vey.

But that’s all of a piece with the prevailing sit-com adolescence and complete lack of taste in this show.

Apart from the massive bed, James Noone’s spare sets were the one relatively subdued element, with towering blond-wood panels, a maze of chandeliers in Act 3 and a reflecting pool that the Count and Countess frolic in at the end of the opera.

If a firmer hand on the singers was manifest from the pit, this Figaro might have had a chance. Yet in another inexplicable Lyric baton debut, Henrik Nánási’s conducting proved workmanlike at best. The Hungarian conductor failed to enforce full note values from the singers, balances were often off and the orchestra bested voices in ensembles. Andrew Davis’s witty and polished Mozart touch was greatly missed.

Luca Pisaroni emerged the most unscathed from the staging, segueing gracefully to the Count from his well-regarded Figaro.  The role lies a bit high for his dark bass-baritone yet Pisaroni conveyed the Count’s bluster and frustration and his vehement Act 3 aria was a highlight.

Making her Lyric debut, Christiane Karg was a charmless Susanna, emerging less like a coy, artful minx than a slattern of unvaried hard-edged pertness. Karg’s vocalism was more engaging, the petite German soprano delivering a lovely, luminous “Deh vieni, non tardar.”

Hobbled by Gaines’ staging and some of Mickey’s most unfortunate costuming, Amanda Majeski’s Countess completely lacked poise, refinement or class. Rather than an elegant melancholy figure, Majeski was apparently encouraged to play her as a licentious, bubble-headed bimbo, who rolls around on the bed with Cherubino, compulsively wolfs down pastries, and plops cake on the Count’s chest at the end of Act III like Lucille Ball. Majeski’s vocalism was similarly uneven with phrase endings trailing off in a pedestrian “Porgi, amor” though she offered a more fluent, focused “Dove sono.”

Adam Plachetka possesses a robust bass-baritone and characterized vividly as the wily Figaro but the Czech singer’s lower register too often faded away with an overly casual approach to his projection and singing.

Rachel Frenkel sang consistently as the hormonally gifted Cherubino, though the tawdry staging had the Israeli mezzo-soprano engage in most of the distracting sexual actions that undermined her character rather than enhancing her vocal moments.

The one genuinely funny characterization was Keith Jameson’s flaming Basilio, making one wish that he would have received his sole aria. Brindley Sherratt was a worthy Bartolo, Katherine Goeldner a characterful Marcellina, Hlengiwe Mkhwanazi a serviceable Barbarina.

Cenerentola opens in a week. Let’s hope for better things.

Le nozze di Figaro runs through October 24.; 312-827-5600.

Posted in Performances

17 Responses to “Pleasures are few in Lyric Opera’s garish, charmless “Figaro””

  1. Posted Sep 28, 2015 at 8:15 am by Anne-Marie

    Figaro is one of my top three operas so I was looking forward to this new production. My first reaction was shock at the costumes. The three principal women characters were like drag queens in their outrageous outfits. I felt like I was watching burlesque and not grand opera! This production was a parody and did not serve Mozart’s glorious music as it should.

    I admit that I laughed a few times at the stage antics but upon reflection, I must agree with Mr. Johnson’s assessment. Crass, vulgar, garish: these seem to be the result of Lyric’s desire to demythologize the operatic experience for today’s reality TV audience. Are we to endure this new direction in the interest of the bottom line?

    I would not dream of taking my younger family members to get their sex education from the opera house. Where has subtlety gone?

    There were definitely good voices in this cast but the staging was too distracting. What was the huge bed all about?

    The English translation was intellectually insulting. Are we so illiterate as to deserve slang and social media driven vocabulary ?

    If this type of productions become the norm at Lyric, I may rethink renewing my season subscription for next season!

  2. Posted Sep 28, 2015 at 12:40 pm by Peter

    Rarely do I agree with every word of a review, but you really got this right, Larry. An appalling production that, for all of its hyper-sexuality, completely missed the humanity and dignity found in the opera. It may work for tittering 7th graders, but not for this opera-goer. Shame on Lyric and Barbara Gaines.

  3. Posted Sep 28, 2015 at 1:32 pm by Roland Buck

    It looks like the Lyric and Chicago Opera Theater are competing with each other at who can do the most effective job at vandalizing Mozart with Eurotrash. What makes them think that people who enjoy Mozart’s great music enjoy this kind of vulgar slapstick?

    I would conjecture that people who actually like this kind of staging much prefer rock performances and will not be attracted to opera by this kind of nonsense. I have bought tickets to both performances, but, since I do not enjoy being subjected to such nonsense and to softcore pornography I probably will not be going to see either one. And I will hold off buying tickets in the future to any of their opera performances until I have read the reviews.

    The proper way to stage historical operas is with relatively historically informed staging that essentially reproduces the staging used in the original performances. It is beginning to look like the only way someone who loves Mozart operas can see them performed properly is to find a DVD that does a good job of the staging.

  4. Posted Sep 29, 2015 at 11:55 am by Jan S.

    Thank you Mr. Johnson for being the most accurate critic in Chicago when it comes to classical music and opera. If one were to believe the “critics” from the highest circulated newspapers in Chicago, you would believe that Lyric does no wrong, ever!

    I attended the dress rehearsal as a guest and I couldn’t agree more with you about this production. Although some of the brash costuming didn’t offend me as badly as it did you, I will say it is sad when the production, Godawful titles, and costumes distract from the work itself. As others have commented, dumbing down opera to a new generation of opera goers alienates the current opera lovers.

    My biggest gripe about my experience in the past 5 years is that although well played, the orchestra is so loud that I struggle hearing the singers. I am not hard of hearing, but lately I feel I am attending an orchestra concert with someone singing in the background.

    A few years back, I remember a huge sign on the building saying “our singers don’t need microphones.” It may be time the Lyric considers using them so we can hear the wonderful singing once again.

  5. Posted Sep 30, 2015 at 11:04 am by Bob Miller

    As 35-year Lyric subscribers this performance was the first one that we fled at intermission, along with many others who apparently felt the same as we did. Ms. Gaines has trouble filling her own house and should concentrate on changing that before she takes on other projects.

    The conductor’s trite uninspired rendition of the National Anthem foreshadowed what was to come.

  6. Posted Oct 05, 2015 at 1:13 am by John Elstrom

    The production of an opera (here The Marriage of Figaro) that actually distracts from the work has often made me wonder why an opera company goes ahead with such nonsense. We all have seen excellent concert performances that let our imagination create the images.

    The work is by Mozart and da Ponte, not Mozart and the director. The marvelous da Ponte libretto here is mauled. The production idea that the performance needs to be brought down to interest the audience is absurd. Let the audience respond and tell the producers to move on!

    Some of the “cuts” reflect a lack of interest or appreciation for the work. Why do we have to have burlesque house sexuality and miss some great tunes? I especially missed Don Basilio’s In quegli anni but I suspect una pelle di somaro had already been claimed by the production group.

    Lorenzo Enucleated

  7. Posted Oct 06, 2015 at 9:34 pm by Heather Essere

    Mr. Johnson of Chicago Classical Review and Ms. Arvia of The Examiner are the only two critics to accurately access this opera. As noted, other so-called critics are not doing their jobs. In addition to delivering a dumbed-down production, the direction of Ms. Gaines was clumsy at best, what with the long and awkward silences in between set changes and lack of chemistry between the cast. Also, felt the modernization of the libretto was lazy. If you really want to make the work more relevant to younger audiences, then do so by updating the setting entirely. Instead of great, this opera was grating.

  8. Posted Oct 07, 2015 at 12:54 am by e smith

    my favorite part of Figaro is the ensemble singing. as i sat in the audience tues. the 6th i began to wonder why instead of a glorious merging of voices it sounded like a mish-mash. the “porgi amor” is an aria i love and wait for, and when she swallowed the ends of her phrases, i felt cheated. in some other spots i was uneasy about uneveness and what seemed singers out of touch with each other. “what is wrong with me?” i thought. “don’t i love this opera?”

    back at my b and b i read this review and found i’m not the only one disappointed. i’m getting used to oddball settings and crazy costumes in our contemporary productions, but when the music falters, that is serious.

    i did think the “translation” cheapened the story, and i tried not to read it, but you know, that is very difficult.

  9. Posted Oct 07, 2015 at 1:50 am by Paul, Chicago

    Excellent review and excellent comments. Mr. Johnson can provide honest and well-informed reviews because yes, he is knowledgeable and insightful but also he does not do feature pieces and puff pieces on our major performing arts institutions and he can therefore be trusted to be impartial.

  10. Posted Oct 08, 2015 at 1:13 am by Victoria

    The only “Bravo!” deserved from this performance is your review. Thank you.

  11. Posted Oct 11, 2015 at 2:56 am by Jacob Hildner

    Full disclosure: My father and stepmother both play violin in the Lyric orchestra. Also, I once contributed a non-Lyric review to this website. My opinions are truly my own, and not affected by any cheerleading, boosterish motive. I’m a full-price Lyric subscriber, have been for many years, and I don’t want to be disappointed. Having read this review and the comments, I was prepared for the worst last night (October 10).

    What I saw instead was a delightful, funny production — wonderfully conceived, beautifully performed — that clearly charmed the capacity crowd no end. From my admittedly somewhat distant perch in the mezzanine, the sexual shtick seemed right and often clever, not gratuitous. All that lusting, after all, isn’t Gaines’s invention — it’s in the libretto. The costumes, deemed vulgar here, struck me as gorgeous and silly and over-the-top in a good way, much like the timeless opera buffa itself. That giant bed? I don’t remember the last time a set got spontaneous applause at Lyric. The bed got it yesterday, and I thought it was a great idea.

    I guess I might have nixed the eating-your-sorrows notion, but I found Majeski’s performance as the Countess duly poignant and lovely regardless. I detected nothing of the bubble-headed bimbo described here. I likewise found Karg an endearing Susanna, and I really liked her voice. The opera is heavy on great ensembles, and if they sound muddy or drowned out, that’s surely annoying. They were not — from my seat on my night, at any rate. In fact, they came off better than they did last time I saw the opera at Lyric, in one of its more “distinguished” productions.

    The great Mozart/da Ponte operas strike me in some ways as the most Shakespearean operas in the canon, notwithstanding the Verdi operas and others directly taken from Shakespeare’s works. This is because they celebrate and embody the vitality of the human spirit with a similar combination of unmatched artistry and unabashed gusto. Gaines has done the Bard proud on Navy Pier for many years, and I sympathized with her motives here — to brighten and invigorate a classic work that can seem long, stilted, and wrapped in cellophane.

    The result, for me, was a great, memorable experience — the sort of experience that will open the the world of opera to newcomers and attract paying customers to Wacker Drive. One enthusiastic comment I overheard from an evident opera newbie in the box seats: “I didn’t think it would be so *funny*!” Music to my ears.

  12. Posted Oct 12, 2015 at 11:52 am by QA

    charmless garish crass certainly ! but also insulting. One problem not mentioned by the perceptive review above was that the stupid even criminal “translation” was so full of gags that it excited sniggers and laughs preventing everyone from concentrating on what was going on in the music. I came from New York on a business trip and hoped to see something wonderful, a repeat of my my first Figaro was a mid-’70s performance with a minimal beautiful staging with Margaret Price as the Countess. Lyric Opera ! when you hire a director please have them take in exam in music; can they read the score? Do they know what it means when the upstairs people have music in different keys from downstairs people? If they do, then none of these travesties will be repeated

  13. Posted Oct 13, 2015 at 9:51 am by Jack Rogers

    Having read Mr Johnson’s review, I’ve learned I haven’t yet lost my wits: Figaro was as bad as I thought–and as is almost universal with Lyric Opera Productions, it was the direction! When will Lyric start hiring good directors who know opera? Over and again Lyric’s productions are ruined right from the start by lousy direction. Are they trying to save money? Or what?! Ditto Cinderella…So sad…

  14. Posted Oct 16, 2015 at 11:30 am by Peter-D-G

    We attended the Thursday October 15 production. Fair number of empty seats where we sit – MF front and center – wonder why. I’m not as negative overall on this production as Mr. Johnson is. I think Lyric needs to be innovative, and so I expect them to strike out on some new ventures. The set was clever and the staging appropriate given the set. I think the brilliant colors were ok; yes, glaring up front but probably “right on” from the top of the house.

    But I have lots of negative comments too, and agree with most voiced above, so I won’t repeat. The three that really got to me were: the super-titles – DISGUSTING – please translate – don’t give me an abridged vernacular gist of the dialogue. I think the author has the skill to do a good job so why project this ..#!&.. garbage? And for much of the singing there was no text up there.

    Second, Plachetka: can he sing? He had some strength but lots of fading. Very disappointing. Finally the conducting – very sad timing. Halfway into of Majeski’s Porgi Amor he just stopped (for a few seconds!) until the audience started applauding, totally destroying her aria.

    P.S.: nice to read a critic here, rather than the promoters our major papers publish.

  15. Posted Oct 19, 2015 at 10:27 pm by Audrey

    We saw Figaro on Sunday, Oct 18 and my impressions were formed before I read this critic or any others. I do this on purpose because too often in the past I’ve disagreed with so-called critics of the arts. I am capable of deciding what I like and don’t like. Simply put, I thought it was a highly creative, original, fun way to present this Mozart work.

    I think Mozart would have loved it. The sets were great…especially the Second Act. The entire story is about love and lust and a huge bed is the perfect piece of furniture.

    Some of the commenters on this thread sound like they don’t get out much. Live a little, people. Mozart’s music is divine and I managed to hear all the notes quite well on Sunday.

    I enjoyed all the singers. The wonderful surprise for me was the soprano who sang Barbarina….beautiful voice. I love new discoveries.

    Looking forward to more original productions at the Lyric.

    A fun, fresh afternoon of opera!

  16. Posted Oct 20, 2015 at 2:48 pm by Pellegrino

    Heavenly music but a burlesque (if colorful) performance that lacked any of Mozart’s subtlety. This production verged on the pornographic and should never again be performed in an opera house as renowned as Lyric. Kudos for Lawrence Johnson’s scathing review.

  17. Posted Oct 25, 2015 at 1:09 am by Maddog

    This was my first opera. The reviews that aim to injure this performance are ridiculous. If this was pornography then you have been hiding under a box for the last 50 years. Packed house, everyone around us enjoyed, old and young. Not sure how old you are mr. Johnson but you sure do show it. Stop hating and enjoy life and all of its color, brash, and brandy.

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