By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Presented by San Francisco Opera
At the War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco, CA
Conducted by Donald Runnicles
Directed by Graziella Sciutti

Reviewed by Judy Richter

Mozart wrote sublimely beautiful music in his Le Nozze di Figaro. Thanks to a marvelous marriage of singers, director, conductor, chorus and orchestra, San Francisco Opera's current production enfolds the audience in that music as well as the drama and pathos of Lorenzo Da Ponte's text, which is based on Beaumarchais's play.

At the center of this production is famed Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel, making his SFO debut as Figaro. Though Terfel can play overbroadly, as he did in the 1995 concert honoring the 70th birthday of principal SFO guest conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, he shows more restraint here. Nevertheless, Terfel's mere presence -- powerful, confident -- and vocal prowess propel him to the fore. His singing is fluid, intelligent, wide-ranging. He's truly a memorable Figaro. Unfortunately, he was scheduled for only four performances. Starting Oct. 22, he'll be succeeded by Italian baritone Giovanni Furlanetto, also in his SFO debut.

Several other principals are making their SFO debuts, all of them welcome. One of them, slender, youthful Austrian mezzo-soprano Angelika Kirchschlager, is a sweet Cherubino. Although some viewers call her a possible successor to Frederica von Stade, she's not that advanced yet. Her voice is lighter, her comedic instincts less well-honed.

Another, Danish baritone Bo Skovhus, who also is making his U.S. operatic debut, is a handsome, conniving Count Almaviva. He has the stature and presence to be a worthy counterpoint to Terfel's Figaro. He also sings well with a warm, rich voice. His Countess Almaviva is portrayed by Norwegian soprano Solveig Kringelborn, also new to the SFO stage. Although her acting isn't as good as some of her colleagues', she does well enough. Her Dove sono is especially well-done because of its variations in dynamics, highlighted by a well-controlled piano in the second stanza that gradually builds toward the aria's climax.

Completing the lineup of those in their SFO debuts is Romanian bass Sorin Coliban as Dr. Bartolo. This performance also marks his U.S. debut. Though Coliban may be a bit young for the role, he handles it with aplomb and sings impressively.

American soprano Sylvia McNair returns to the SFO stage, this time as Susanna. McNair endows the character with the necessary intelligence and ingenuity, as well as a sense of fun. She and Terfel work well together, especially in the opening scene, when their characters' love for each other seems genuine. McNair also sings well on her own but sometimes doesn't blend well enough in ensembles.

Completing the cast, American mezzo-soprano Judith Christin is a comical Marcellina and American soprano Peggy Kriha Dye an appealing Barbarina. Lesser roles are ably handled by Belgrade bass-baritone Bojan Knezevic as Antonio and American tenor Marc Molomot as Don Curzio. The bridesmaids are nicely sung by Virginia Pluth and Sally Munro.

Stage director Graziella Sciutti, herself a former Susanna, stages the production intelligently. She allows the music and situation to dictate the action, rather than trying to force laughter with excessive stage business. Donald Runnicles, SFO music director, conducts sure-handedly, supporting the singers well. He leads his fine SFO Orchestra through an especially brisk overture, but the articulation is clean despite the tempo. The SFO Chorus also is fine.

The stage design by Zack Brown, seen here before and based on the paintings of Goya, generally works well. Joan Arhelger's lighting design is complementary.

Overall, it's a wonderful production, one that blends all of the elements of music, drama and stage into a most satisfying whole.

For more information, see the San Francisco Opera home page.

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Monday, 08-Dec-2003 21:44:38 PST