In the third act of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro at Central City Opera, sopranos Sinead Mulhern and Anna Christy sing "Che Soave Zefiretto," the duet in which the Countess (Mulhern) composes a letter for her maid Susanna (Christy) to take down; the two women are playing a comic trick on the Count — but this just happens to be one of the loveliest and most lyrical pieces of music ever composed. The countess lays out the phrases and asks Susanna to repeat them, which she does. The women sing separately, then alternate, and finally their voices twine together. There's something about the melody, the structure and the way the duet encompasses both womanly mischief and the Countess's very real sorrow at losing the Count that makes you want the singing to go on forever.
The plot involves a lot of familiar eighteenth-century devices: mistaken identities, plotting, improbable twists (Figaro discovers that the older woman he's being pressured to marry is his mother, for example); a female performer dressed as a boy who then dresses as a girl; wily servants who are smarter and more ethical than their supposed betters; and principals lusting for people they shouldn't be lusting for. When the Count kneels at the end to ask the Countess's forgiveness, it takes a heart of stone not to be moved — but that's because of the music, not the man. Nothing indicates that this randy Count won't stray again.
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According to his notes, Alessandro Talevi — who directed this fluid, absorbing production — is interested in the power structures in Figaro and "the tension that arises from their being challenged." He has set the action in 1920s Spain "because it was deeply conservative and religious in conflict with a dynamic progressive movement of secularism, universal suffrage and human rights." This theme is clear in the Count's arrogance toward others, including his wife, and his intention to exercise the traditional droit de seigneur by bedding Susanna on her wedding night. It's also evident in Susanna and Figaro's irreverent refusal to bow down to authority.
Listening to Mozart's operas on disc, I've had a tendency to fast-forward from aria to aria, skipping recitative and little curlicues of plot — but at Central City, I experienced the full effect of Figaro. In the final act, Susanna and the Countess swap clothes, leading to a zany melée of misunderstandings during which just about every other character appears on stage at some point to remonstrate, flirt, explain, scold or argue. Now I was noticing the overall shape of the act — how the discrete moments fit together, how one musical passage gives way to another, and the precise, intricate way a second or third voice is integrated into the movement of the music. You could lose yourself in all this, become immersed in the waves of sound spilling over you, and become — to resort to the terminology of the Victorians — transported, enraptured, tranced.
The Marriage of Figaro
Presented in rotation with Dead Man Walking and The Sound of Music by the Central City Opera through July 25, 124 Eureka Street, Central City. 303-292-6700, centralcityopera.org.
Under the skilled, lively baton of Adrian Kelly, the cast is headed by Anna Christy as Susanna and Michael Sumuel as Figaro. Christy is an expressive performer, and her soprano is superb: light, lovely and assured. I suspect we'll be hearing a lot about Sumuel, with his dark, gleaming bass baritone, humor and infectious exuberance. Edward Parks has a rich, strong, supple baritone, and he and Mulhern make beautiful music together as the Count and Countess. Tamara Gura brings her fine contralto to the role of Cherubino, and Claire Shackleton is a warm-voiced, empathetic Marcellina. Playing Barbarina, Julie Tabash has one short, lovely song, "L'ho perduta," and she makes the most of it, singing with melodious charm.
Built by Welsh miners in 1878, the 550-seat Central City Opera is in some ways a more perfect venue than many of the world's great opera houses. The ambience is warm, the house is perfectly proportioned for sound, and the performers are so close you can catch every nuance and inflection — a fitting setting for a composer who seemed unable to contain his own genius or figure out how to hold back for a moment and stop giving pleasure.