SAN FRANCISCO — A strange thing happened Friday at the San Francisco Opera.
Terence McEwen, the dauntless general director, hired a knowing conductor and assembled an able cast for Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro." The physical production, used only once before, looked handsome and the stage director turned out to be a seasoned pro.
The result should have been compelling. But, somehow, it wasn't.
What went wrong? Nothing, and everything.
As the world has known since 1786, "Figaro" is a work of genius, a work of daring and a precarious fusion of seeming contradictions. It is a very human comedy even though it makes generous use of opera buffa conventions. It ventures bitter--or at least bittersweet--comments on the battle between the sexes as well as the battle between the classes. Still, it delineates its characters with warmth, candor and abiding tenderness.
It is funny, but not a farce. It is sad, but hardly a tragedy.
The San Francisco forces obviously know all that, and they obviously respect the source. Unfortunately, they do little to bring the special qualities of the work into illuminating focus.
They play the opera relatively clean and straight, avoid gimmicks, eschew exaggeration. They are so cautious, so reverent and so unimaginative, however, that they reduce a prime example of vital musical theater to just another comfortable ritual.
One wouldn't necessarily want a "Figaro" of the 1980s to take place on the moon, in Reno or in Siberia. Novelty for its own sake is silly and a bore. Still, an old-fashioned, hand-me-down "Figaro" that conveys no independent insights isn't exactly stimulating, either.
Time marches on. Mozart can, and probably should, march with it.
Under the cautious circumstances, one had to be grateful Friday for nice music-making, decent singing, competent acting and pretty pictures.
Jeffrey Tate conducted. Although a small and scrappy pit band hardly performed for him with elegance, and although the War Memorial Opera House seems very large for his essentially intimate concept, he sustained poise and good taste throughout.
He chose sensible if exceptionally slow tempos for most of the introspective arias, didn't mind lingering over expressive nuances when the situation warranted dramatic expansion, yet supported gracious momentum in the climactic ensembles.
John Copley staged the work pretty much as he has for decades in opera houses from London to San Diego, stressing fluidity of motion and clarity of comic action. His only serious lapse toward vulgarity on this occasion took place in Act I, where he allowed an exceptionally obnoxious Basilio to rummage through Susanna's laundry and--I'm not making this up--sniff Susanna's panties.
This must represent a step onward, if not upward. In San Diego, after all, Copley had the seedy old music master pop a pimple in the soubrette's mirror.
Zack Brown's sets, first seen here in 1982, place the intricate intrigues in a rather dark, distinctly modest Spanish villa--a country home for the Almavivas replete with quaint and faint odes to Goya. Everything looks undeniably attractive, though one misses the wonted touches of elegance.
The cast was dominated by Samuel Ramey, a dark-toned, wide-ranged, eminently amiable Figaro who went through all the conventional motions with authority. Gianna Rolandi complemented him as a plump and pleasing if wispy-sounding Susanna.
Kiri Te Kanawa returned as a lovely, slightly mannered, essentially self-conscious Countess. Her silvery soprano breezed through the two great arias but nearly balked at the High Cs restored to her in the second-act trio.
Michael Devlin, her Count, proved himself a master of the frustrated double-take, a formidable romantic foil and a noble stooge. Except for the strains that afflict most baritones at the end of the cruel third-act aria, he sang the role with mellifluous brio.
The ubiquitous Susan Quittmeyer repeated her charming, increasingly dry-voiced Cherubino.
The supporting assembly included a strong Macellina (Judith Christin), a weak Bartolo (Artur Korn), a dutiful Basilio (Dennis Petersen), a crusty Antonio (Monte Pederson) and a sweet Barbarina (Li-Chan Chen).
There was nothing wrong here that a little inspiration and a little purposeful prodding might not have cured. Tightening of the four-hour marathon--do we really need three intermissions?--wouldn't have hurt, either.
The audience, not incidentally, followed and loved all the ancient plot convolutions, thanks to the now-standard use of supertitles. The integrity of the music and libretto was often jeopardized, however, by timing problems.
The lines projected on the screen atop the proscenium often anticipated the wit as constructed by Mozart and his librettist. The laughs, therefore, tended to precede the jokes.