From the opening Indian folk dance involving courtship ritual, it is clear that this won’t be your father’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Indeed, the proceedings are transported to colonial India, which lends itself to another dimension of social interpretation of the text. Shifting the time and place of operas from their originally defined setting is common, as new vistas unfold on old trails, provoking fresh thought. Not all of these transfers work well, but Opera San José’s thoughtful transmogrification feels as natural and organic as if it were intended to be there. It doesn’t hurt that the production exudes charm and entertains from beginning to end.
This 1786 opera was the first of three collaborations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte, as fine a composer and librettist team as has ever created opera – their other works being “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi Fan Tutte.” Perhaps more than any other, “Marriage” is considered to be the finest comic opera ever written, if not the finest opera altogether. Not only are Mozart’s musical powers at their peak, but da Ponte’s distillation of the book produces genuine comedy of many ilks – manners, sight, physical, verbal, mistaken identity, and more. Further, he creates characters that we care about, and their foibles are well presented in a constantly moving narrative driven by thoughtful lyrics.
The story line is somewhat complicated to summarize as convoluted subplots abound, but the dominant thread is the profound influence of hormones on humanity. At its center is the droit de seigneur, the right of feudal lords to have sex with their female servants on their wedding night. Figaro, the valet to Count Almaviva, is engaged to Susanna, the maidservant to the Countess. Although the Count had previously renounced his right, he is quite taken by Susanna and has decided to re-enact it before she marries. This causes consternation among many, especially the betrothed and the Countess. Intrigue and hilarious machinations ensue. Identities are swapped; refuge is taken in closets and behind skirts; and escape is taken by jumping out of a second-floor window.
One might wonder why Figaro is the title character of the work. “Marriage” contains five major principals who are important to the plot and share significant air time and highlights. Efrain Solis is a fine Figaro. Generally cheerful, he is naïve about the motives of the Count, having no wariness as to why the Count would want the newlyweds to have a bedroom next to his. Solis’ warm baritone and disposition suit the role well. He renders Figaro’s arias, such as “Non più andrai,” with conviction but could use more power at the bottom of his range.
Overmatching Figaro, Susanna possesses smarts and quick thinking, which comes in handy when having to outmaneuver the Count. The delightful lyric soprano Maya Kherani plays Susanna. While her tone was good throughout opening night, it seemed that she needed warmup time before her volume hit full stride. By Act 3, her ethereal duet with Maria Natale as the Countess, “Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto,” was sublime. But despite the heavenly sound of the harmony, the countess was proposing a conspiracy to trap the Count in an indiscretion.
Natale displays easy power and a beautiful sound with her instrument. She also excels in the tender aria “Dove sono” about the sorrow that the Count’s inconstancy has brought her. Here and elsewhere, the comedy is set aside, and we feel sympathy for the plight of very humanized characters.
The center of attention is the lascivious Count Almaviva. Eugene Broncoveanu offers an imposing presence in the part, and he has the comic chops to show the silly side of the Count. But what this artist brings to every role he plays is a house-filling baritone voice that always seems as if it’s produced effortlessly.
The fifth wheel in the opera is the also lustful Cherubino, one of the great trousers roles in opera. Deepa Johnny is up to the challenge. While Cherubino acts as a sidekick, he has some of the funniest situations, which Johnny handles with great aplomb. What’s more, he (Cherubino)/she (Johnny) has two great vocal highlights, the rapid patter “Non so più cosa son” and the ever popular “Voi che sapete.” Johnny is up to the vocal demands as well with a warm vibrato and big sound.
Apart from the fine cast, the other aspects that make the production work exquisitely are its attractiveness and cultural representation. These successes are at least partially attributable to the fact that OSJ had many cultural resources to call upon, both creative designers and cast. Set designs reflect the style of Indian interiors with scalloped arches and classic Indian decorative motifs. Characters are bedecked in colorful saris and shalwar chemises. And the cherry on top is a lively, colorful, stage-filling Bollywood-style dance as a closing number.
“The Marriage of Figaro” conceived by its creators reveals class differences and their consequences in a Spanish, but rather generic European, setting. So, why colonial India? By depicting the Count and Countess as British, new subtexts emerge – relationships between Imperialists and subjects, which in this case also corresponds to white versus brown.
An alternative treatment could have been to make the nobles Indian. Indian royalty did exist, and the social distinctions among Indian castes were profound. However, Silicon Valley is home to many of South Asian heritage. They come from different religions and origins (as do the cast and the creative team). Launching a production sensitive to all of the potential intraregional issues probably would have been a greater challenge than going with the colonial angle. In any case, this production engages and delights even more than this reviewer’s previous experiences with this great opera.
“The Marriage of Figaro,” with music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte is based on the play “La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro” by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais; is produced by Opera San Jose; and plays at the California Theatre, 123 South 1st Street, San José, CA through September 25, 2022.