An opera in which the servants outclass the masters and women outsmart the men, the Mozart/Da Ponte classic The Marriage of Figaro has been a gold mine for directors interested in class struggle and gender politics. German director Claus Guth, who made his overdue Canadian Opera Company debut on Thursday with his 2006 Salzburg production of Figaro, is not one of those directors. He took the road less travelled by diminishing the importance of social rank in the opera: The setting is a large decaying manor occupied by a group of people, some in employ of others, some tenuously coupled, all equally inept in the matters of heart. The era is not the 18th century but decidedly later, a claustrophobic Strindberg meets Scenes from a Marriage setup.
The references to the jus primae noctis and the question whether the Count will give up this aristocratic privilege and let Susanna marry Figaro without interference are still there in the libretto of course, but Guth's Count is an upper-middle-class gent with a large country house and serious yen for his wife's associate Susanna. The joke is not on him only, as many productions of Figaro have it, but on everybody equally. A significant twist will have it that Susanna is genuinely torn between the Count and her fiancé Figaro (goodbye, class analysis) and in certain scenes clearly prefers the more powerful man. Her friendship with the Countess is also ambiguous, her part in their joint plotting sometimes half-hearted or marked by tedium (goodbye, sisterhood).
Can we love a reading of an opera that leaves all the best bits out, then? Yes, we can: Such is the power of Guth's vision. Cupid is the most important character in the production, and while he is ordinarily disguised in the character of the oversexed, gender-fluid young mezzo soprano role Cherubino, Guth here gave him a powerful double in the dynamic non-speaking role (the excellent Uli Kirsch) that comes in at key turns and manipulates the characters like a puppeteer.
The tempo that Johannes Debus chose for the COC orchestra is rather languid, and the recits feel especially leisurely, but that is on a par with the production in which characters rather wallow in their own emotions. For continuo accompaniment to the recits Debus chose, atypically, a sombre modern grand piano instead of the crisp, cheerier sound of the harpsichord. It's the right colour for the production, it turns out, and the skillful Jordan de Souza at the piano added a note of almost Romantic intimacy to the proceeding.
Austrian baritone Josef Wagner takes the title role and strikes the right tone in a role that dramatically takes the back seat – Figaro is the only principal with one clear goal and no conflicting love interests. In this case, he's a young man in a grey suit and a lot of aspirations, but Wagner manages to keep him interesting. His voice is smooth, timbre, youthful, and his dramatic instincts sound. This is an Erin Wall and Russell Braun show, however. Wall's ample, muscular, resplendent voice combined with the vulnerable and wise persona makes for a devastating Countess. Every sung word is imbued with emotion – note how she uses controlled vibrato in some scenes to make her expression more plaintive, almost sobbing. Braun is terrific as the overwrought Count, deeply felt, generously acted, rock solidly sung. It's a Count who reveals his vulnerability and struggles with his demons before our eyes – quite literally in Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro, with the winged Cherub sitting on his shoulder.
Emily Fons is an androgynous delight as Cherubino, with a honeyed yet light voice and great physical daring. In close quarters of a remote manor the emotions are heightened, and Guth gives many of the key arias an extra edge. Figaro and the Count dispatch Cherubino to war with a Non più andrai that involves bullying and bloodletting. The opposite but parallel scene takes place later in the Countess' chamber, where the smitten Cherubino happily takes a lesson in the facts of life under Susanna's hands and is sandwiched in a lesbian threesome (the pretext is the dressing of Cherubino in women's clothes for a decoy-the-Count game).
Jane Archibald is an extraordinary coloratura soprano who dramatically however remains somewhat reserved in the roles she inhabits, and at first may strike as an unusual choice for Susanna. But a contained Susanna who keeps herself largely to herself turns out to be just what the production required: She incites our sympathies and our qualms in equal measure and remains an enigmatic character throughout.
The denouement of Figaro is particularly tricky for any director, as it involves disguises, real deceptions, pretend deceptions, an aria sung insincerely yet beautifully as a joke on Figaro and similar complications. It's a particular challenge if the director decides to forgo the letter of the libretto that demands a dark garden and stays true to his or her overriding concept. Guth stays indoors and keeps the light on and the identity confusions are aided by scarves, shady corners, dream-like set doubled and mirroring itself, and a whole lot of magic from the winged Cherub. This is perhaps the weak point of the production where everything slows down when it should be getting frantic. But the payoff is the final scene that comes with a crucial interpretive twist of its own. The marriage is not followed by the happily ever after – it's the start of a drama of a whole different character.
The Marriage of Figaro runs until Feb. 27 at the Four Seasons Centre in Toronto (coc.ca).