Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer

Composer and Cast Carry Boston Lyric Opera Figaro

Boston Lyric Opera’s new Marriage of Figaro arrives disguised as a high-concept production, with the curtain lifting halfway through the overture to reveal a group of stagehands playing cards, ostensibly caught off-guard by the start of the performance. The wings are un-curtained, exposing cast and crew loitering backstage between entrances, exists, and scene changes. Props and sets are unfinished, with bare plywood doors featuring prominently through the first act. Stage director Rosetta Cucchi’s idea to expose theater’s artificiality isn’t particularly original, and was neither revelatory nor especially relevant to Mozart and Da Ponte’s work. It also drew the eye away from the center stage to extraneous interactions among cast and crew at the periphery.

That said, the conceit merely dressed-up an otherwise traditional Figaro (gently updated to a 1950s Italian villa) with an impeccable cast and tight staging of the central action. The production opened Friday night in John Hancock Hall.

If Figaro can fall somewhere on a spectrum between quick-witted schemer and slightly slow-witted dope, Evan Hughes’ portrayal was closer to the latter. Some might prefer a Figaro with a little more gleam in his eye, one who relishes in exposing the Count’s detestable plan, but this more wooden take on the character gave Emily Birsan space to step up as a brilliant Susanna, nearly nudging Figaro out as main character and primary mover of the comic drama. Both leads showed fine, well-matched voices and lithe Mozartean instincts.

Nicole Heaston anchored the production as a model Countess: regal and world-weary. Her “Porgi, amor” was staged by-the-book as a lonely bedroom confessional, while her third-act aria unfolded in an ornate, baroquely painted armchair—a beautiful touch by set designer John Conklin. It was an effective progression for the Countess, literally sitting up and growing a backbone to face her philandering husband. At the end of the aria, Heaston basked in applause without breaking character, staring out at the house with defiant eyes, amplifying the Countess’s dignity and newfound resolve.

David Pershall, cast as a rather young Count, seemed more like a playboy—testing the limits of what he could get away with—than an authoritarian threat to Susanna on her wedding night. One worried less for the servant girl and more for the Countess, who repeatedly found herself on the wrong end of the Count’s rifle, substituting here for the usual sword.

Secondary characters shone in some of the performance’s most memorable moments. Emily Fons played Cherubino, here with cowboy boots and hat, sharing a delightful chemistry with Birsan’s Susanna (in a friendship with a mutually flirtatious edge). David Cushing’s Bartolo and Michelle Trainor’s Marcellina transformed convincingly from adversary to adoring familial when Figaro’s mysterious parentage is revealed. Sara Womble, a BLO Emerging Artist, sang a striking “L’ho perduta,” a doleful blink-and-you-miss-it aria for the peasant girl Barbarina.

The orchestra, under David Angus, played with admirable finesse in the theater’s unforgiving, bone-dry acoustic. Brett Hodgdon accompanied recitatives from the fortepiano with mostly straightforward realizations, but—in a humorous touch—opened Act Three with the Nokia ringtone as the Count took a call.

The production played up the opera’s madcap domestic antics, while downplaying its pointed political and social commentary. In Act Two, Susanna and the Countess read magazines together on the bed, more like girlfriends than servant and master, making their later trading-places seem less transgressive than might otherwise be. It was a surprisingly safe slant, since a more radical, more subversive Figaro would be obvious in today’s political climate.

Figaro isn’t an opera that needs a high-concept treatment; neither stagehand-revealing metatheater nor self-aware politics is necessary for it to feel fresh and make a mark. BLO’s production inadvertently proved that Mozart’s score, smartly staged with a cast of talented singers, transcends directorial conceit.

Review originally appeared in the Boston Musical Intelligencer

Benjamin Pesetsky composer and writer