© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

If there be perfection, this "Figaro" may describe it

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 23, 2010 - Over the years I’ve acquired a hearty and unapologetic antipathy for “The Marriage of Figaro.” Hearing this 19th of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operas described as “perfect” or “nearly perfect” or “almost perfect” so often by so many and with such fervent sentimentality is part of what riles me up, provoking the old “Sez Who?” response when the “perfect” business is trotted out once again the moment this show hits the stage.

This baptism of perfection of “The Marriage of Figaro” makes me long for an imperfect but ice pick-sharp “Lulu” or a long-overdue revival of Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ “Postman” to ring twice again to awaken us to the verities and ambiguities of our troubled time.

Attempts have been made to do just that – to modernize or to render “Figaro” more accessible, the better to bring in more young people who may not like opera but have proclivities for camp and smut, or to engage those of us who frankly are just plain sick of Rosina, Count Almaviva, Figaro, Susanna and the rest of them. Such productions of the opera serve to increase the heat of my antipathy.  Remember the Vacuum Sweeper “Figaro” of 1999, in which “perfection” was swept up and emptied into the garbage can? Rather not perfect, one might say.

So there.

But here comes a “however” pitched with intensity worthy of Nolan Ryan. Opera Theatre’s 2010 production has all the characteristics necessary to produce a perfect work of art. While absolutist perfectionists may pick away at this or that, I cannot imagine a better production.

What brings it to the state of the sublime? Well, start in the orchestra pit and work your way up.

The St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, under the nimble direction of Opera Theatre music director Stephen Lord, played with a rare, difficult brand of virtuosity, a creature born to a marriage of intelligence and technical precision.

The cast is perfection, too. Although some might jump on some diction problems here and there, the sound – the crystalline character of the sound – is what ultimately matters.

What may not always matter is absolute physical perfection. Sometimes in an attempt to get that sound, a casting director has to bring in a singer who’s too old or too tall or skinny for the part, but such a singer is hired because of the quality of the voice. Opera Theatre – which has an astonishing record of bringing to its stage singing actors who not only make magical music but also look the part – has accomplished that quality again.

This music and these personalities make their particular magic in settings that make absolute sense in this production. Form follows function as the action evolves in every scene, from the mattress-measuring business in Act I to the surreal but convincing garden of the finale.

Light, without which there is nothing, was deeply affecting, washing as it did over the sets and singers with amazing balances of light and shadow, creating a world into which we had the good fortune to enter for three magical hours.

Calling something out as perfect seems Olympian to me, and the hubristic aspects of it bother me. But in this “Figaro,” all of these elements conspire to achieve a state worthy of being called perfect, as long as we say it cautiously.

And here is a final consideration: If the intellectual and philosophical underpinnings of great sprawling works of art such as operas are ignored or forgotten, the greatest music and best looking artists in the world will not save the show.

Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte brought to the three operas on which they collaborated (“Figaro,” “Don Giovanni” and “Cosi fan tutte”) a fervent ambition to exalt their work beyond the stage, beyond the control of their royal and noble patrons, to a status above the merely beautiful, striking and satisfying, into the realm of politics, and into vigorous efforts for social change that formed what we call Enlightenment.

“Figaro” reminds us in the end – while a certain momentary equilibrium is achieved – that state, as we learn daily, is transitory indeed, and the virtuous music that supports it will drift away.That eloquent and telling crack that runs through the set like a fault line is still evident at the finale, and to ignore it is to trip and fall, truly and metaphorically.

Sure enough, as the stage is about to go dark at the end of the show, a never-planted tree is raised from the ground only where it maintains a balance for seconds, then crashes down on the stage, reminding us with a wallop that efforts to put chaos in its place and to control nature are largely futile, often fatal, systemically vainglorious.

Robert W. Duffy reported on arts and culture for St. Louis Public Radio. He had a 32-year career at the Post-Dispatch, then helped to found the St. Louis Beacon, which merged in January with St. Louis Public Radio. He has written about the visual arts, music, architecture and urban design throughout his career.