Love and ‘Marriage’

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If you have never seen Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” there’s nothing in the San Francisco Opera revival that opened Saturday at the War Memorial Opera House to keep you away. It’s a winner.

The young cast looks great, can act and sings the music with buoyancy and charm. John Copley’s traditional, tasteful production is awash in laughs. The restoration of the supertitle screen to the proscenium increases audience participation.

If I have reservations, it’s because I’ve been attending the San Francisco Opera for 60 years and some of my “Figaro” Countesses were opera’s glossiest stars — Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Lisa Della Casa, Pilar Lorengar, Kiri Te Kanawa and Renee Fleming.

Yep, that’s a “read it and weep” list, which is not to knock Ruth Ann Swenson, whose Countess Almaviva headlines the current show. Swenson is a demonstrably great Mozart singer, but rather than being a natural Countess, she’s a born Susanna in manner, tone and personality.

The Countess’ deep, tender strains of melancholy sexuality are simply not in the sunny Swenson’s armory, though she sings both arias beautifully and takes the top line in the Act Two ensemble — sometimes assigned to Susanna — with sovereign confidence. She also looks edible in the production’s uncredited pastel costumes.

Though the Countess is normally the star of “Figaro,” this production is notable for the Susanna of Camilla Tilling, a lovely young Swede making her San Francisco Opera debut. She was so calmly matter-of-fact in the first scene, I wondered if she was “big” enough in voice and personality for the vast expanses of the War Memorial.

Not to worry. Not only did Tilling’s light, poised soprano project perfectly in the recitatives, but her singing (with Swenson) of the “Letter Duet” and her “Deh vieni” in the last act were absolutely ravishing.

The leading men were not quite as appealing as their ladies. Peter Mattei has an enormous reputation as a Mozartian, but I found his Count nasty without being sexy and recessive without being sympathetic. John Relyea’s goofy Figaro is too bluff and collegiate for my taste; more sophistication would be appreciated.

Musically, the evening found the orchestra playing well. Conductor Roy Goodman smartly emphasized winds over strings, though I still find his attention to ornamentation to be too erratic. Carol Isaac’s harpsichord accompaniments were witty, rich in musical allusion, and just the right tempos to make the recitatives sparkle.

The Marriage of Figaro ???

When: Playing through July 2

Where: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco

Price: Tickets are $25-$235

Info: Call (415) 864-3330 or visit www.sfopera.com

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