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From left to right, Lauren Fagan as the Countess, Emily Fons as Cherubino, and Andrea Carroll as Susanna in the Canadian Opera Company’s production of The Marriage of Figaro.Michael Cooper 2022 Opera Company

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  • Title: The Marriage of Figaro
  • Written by: Mozart
  • Director: Claus Guth
  • Actors: Luca Pisaroni, Andrea Carroll, Lauren Fagan, Gordon Bintner
  • Company: Canadian Opera Company
  • Venue: Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
  • City: Toronto
  • Year: Jan. 27 to 29; Feb. 2, 4, 10, 12, 16, 18, 2023

The Canadian Opera Company’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro runs through mid-February, but its suitability to the month’s most romantic day remains an open question. This Figaro is a decidedly bloody Valentine.

The cherub in the current staging, first presented by the COC in 2016, is less interested in starry-eyed romance than desire-fuelled chaos. The 1786 opera, based on Pierre Beaumarchais’s play La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro, pokes holes in the idea of class positions, portraying servants Figaro (Luca Pisaroni) and Susanna (Andrea Carroll) preparing for their nuptials in the household of the unhappily married Countess (Lauren Fagan) and Count Almaviva (Gordon Bintner).

The latter harbours intentions of reviving the aristocratic practice of jus primae noctis (bedding Susanna before Figaro, that is) even as he negotiates the interfering presence of young, randy Cherubino (Emily Fons), who desires both the Count’s wife and Figaro’s fiancée.

Claus Guth’s production, first presented in Salzburg in 2006, lends Cherubino a supreme symbolism, his twin being a feather-sprinkling, mischief-making cherub (Uli Kirsch) less interested in class warfare than the mechanisms of desire. Thus does the production turn expectations upside down in ways that illuminate Lorenzo Da Ponte’s already-clever libretto.

Moments played for laughs (like Cherubino being served army orders in Act I) become serious; moments once played serious (the Count’s apology to his wife in the final act) are comic. The threat of violence leads to desire (a heated argument between the Count and his wife has a twist), even as jealousy can often lead to its end (Figaro’s suspicions of his wife’s fidelity are very well-founded).

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Bintner’s compulsively watchable Count Almaviva is presented as less a buffoonish bully than an overwhelmed man-child.Michael Cooper 2022 Opera Company

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A spontaneous threesome between Susanna, the Countess, and Cherubino occurs when the latter is meant to be costumed as a maid to avoid the ire of the Count. Desire is controlled by the wily cherub, who climbs on characters’ backs, directs their attention, twirls, drags, droops and drops feathers everywhere before bestowing a final, if inevitable, fate on his human twin.

It is fascinating, to be sure, but the busy nature of the staging (presented in Toronto with revival director Marcelo Buscaino) sometimes diffuses the power of Mozart’s evocative score, the most glaring example coming at the end of Act II, when text-based animation and swooning human counterparts prove more distracting than illuminating, more silly than salacious.

Solid performances anchor the chaos, however, with Pisaroni’s Figaro a magnetic focal point. Moving seamlessly between anger, joy, confusion and pathos, his Figaro is recognizably human if ultimately doomed by his own capacity for feeling.

Non più andrai (You Shall Go No More), in which he violently sends the shocked Cherubino off to war, is a showcase of barking performative masculinity to sexual rival and boss Almaviva. The final act’s Aprite un po quegli occhi, in which he entreats men to “open your eyes” to the “sirens who draw us in,” is shot through with authentic hurt at his realization of Susanna’s betrayal.

The Italian bass-baritone, who has performed the roles of both Figaro and the Count at the Metropolitan Opera, the Salzburg Festival and the Paris Opera, consistently channels the earthy element in Guth’s high-concept vision.

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Uli Kirsch as Cherubim (top) and Gordon Bintner as the Count.Michael Cooper 2022 Opera Company

Bintner’s compulsively watchable Almaviva is presented as less a buffoonish bully than an overwhelmed man-child. The Canadian bass-baritone combines his immense physicality and oak-toned voice to paint a portrait of a young nobleman negotiating his roles both in and out of society.

He shares a palpable chemistry with Carroll, a sparky, sexy Susanna, whose vocal colour increased throughout the evening. Her warm, plummy tones contrast with soprano Fagan’s crystalline Countess, providing a chewy sonic counterpoint to their unspoken rivalry. Dove sono i bei momenti, from the third act, in which the Countess ponders where “the lovely moments” of her marriage went, is delivered by Fagan with touching conviction and a sonorous, bell-like tone.

Such delicacy contacts the production’s stark, early 20th-century visual by set and costume designer Christian Schmidt, an aesthetic dominated by grey hues and recalling the claustrophobic interiority of Ingmar Bergman’s films. The lush garden locale of the final act is here only the angular white staircase design that dominates throughout, a wedding dress pinned beneath a riser like a suspended corpse. There is no happy ending here, no verdant-green fairy-tale hill filled with joyous coupledom.

The mischief-making cherub has, by the opera’s conclusion, used up all his feathers and had his wings clipped. Conductor Harry Bicket alternates tempi, the COC Orchestra effectively complementing the production’s theatricality, as well as providing a thoughtful, necessary counterpoint of tenderness amidst brutality.

In the interest of consistency across all critics’ reviews, The Globe has eliminated its star-rating system in film and theatre to align with coverage of music, books, visual arts and dance. Instead, works of excellence will be noted with a critic’s pick designation across all coverage. (Television reviews, typically based on an incomplete season, are exempt.)

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