More Mozart memories from Ravinia

"The Marriage of Figaro" at Ravinia (from left): James Conlon (conductor), Stéphane Degout (Count Almaviva), Lisette Oropesa (Susanna) and Rodell Rosel (Don Basilio).
“The Marriage of Figaro” at Ravinia (from left): James Conlon (conductor), Stéphane Degout (Count Almaviva), Lisette Oropesa (Susanna) and Rodell Rosel (Don Basilio).

Classical Music Critic

Along with two performances of “Don Giovanni” (discussed in these pages last week), also on the Ravinia Festival program this year were two performances of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Mozart was well represented by a handsome group of singers this summer.

There was a sturdy Figaro in bass-baritone John Relyea. His deep rumbling voice projected easily and his characterization was nicely conceived, conveying craftiness and confusion equally well. His posturing when he believes the Count is after his beloved Susanna (“Se vuol ballare”) was strong and his singing appropriately blustery.

Susanna, the woman waiting to be his wife, was imbued with wit and charm by soprano Lisette Oropesa. She sang with lovely tone even if she occasionally found herself seeming to choke on the Italian.

Soprano Soile Isokoski was the center of dignity in this production with an understated and sympathetic account of Countess Almaviva. While a veteran singer, she still has the admirable quality of being able to float soft high notes and her phrasing was exquisite. Her “Dove sono,” an account of her heartbreak at the hands of her husband, was full of sorrow and expertly rendered.

Baritone Stéphane Degout played the Count as cool and suave, with a controlled aristocratic bearing and lots of confidence.

Mezzo-soprano Renée Rapier’s Cherubino had the youthful energy needed for this trouser role but came up short in the role’s comedic moments.

Soprano Marie McLaughlin, on the other hand, has a talent for combining a winning voice with easy comedy. She gave Marcellina just the right amount of sass and fire. And she can hardly be faulted for being far too pretty for the role of a old, scheming woman who wants to force Figaro to marry her until she learns that he’s actually her son.

While his acting skills were given minimal display, Kristinn Sigmundsson’s Bartolo featured pleasing singing. The Icelandic bass had lots of gusto in “La vendetta, oh la vendetta,” his cry for revenge against Figaro.

It was impossible not to appreciate tenor Rodell Rosel. He was consistently a delight, giving Don Basilio a deliciously smarmy manner. He was notably adept with using crisp diction and staccato together for superb humorous effect.

The 18 singers from the Chicago Symphony Chorus created quite a lot of sound, in spite of their small number, and they efficiently appeared and disappeared from the area to the left of the stage.

Audrey Saint-Gil’s harpsichord, played from an apron to the right of the stage, was fluid and graceful.

You knew you were in for a great night of music only moments after the performance began. James Conlon led the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in a very satisfying reading of the overture (even if the ending might have been more brash) and his leadership at the podium drew out fine performances not just from the orchestra but the singers as well. It was amusing to note that whenever Conlon turned from the orchestra to look at his singers, you could see him mouthing the words.

Stage director Harry Silverstein, who has directed opera on big stages in such places as Houston and San Francisco, as well as here at Chicago’s Lyric, appeared flummoxed by the small part of the Martin Theater stage allocated to the action. (The orchestra took up most of it.) The scene where first Cherubino and then the Count use a chair to hide should be good for big laughs, but Silverstein’s approach was a pure dud.

Without props or any kind of stage settings, it can be hard to establish a sense of place, and Silverstein certainly did not do so. But it was really worse than that. His lack of imagination meant that this performance had stretches where it was more like a concert where the singers sometimes looked at each other.

Even so, the energy from the orchestra and the singers was splendid and the audience loved it, quickly rising for a standing ovation when it was over.