OPERA REVIEW : Mixed Blessings in Mozartian Marriage

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

Some performances at the Music Center Opera soar. Others sag. As run by Peter Hemmings in a world compromised by fiscal uncertainty, the company certainly has its ups and downs.

"Le Nozze di Figaro"--brilliantly conceived by Peter Hall and sensitively performed by an enlightened ensemble in 1990--could be counted among the ups. Everyone loved it.

The production represented an uncommonly happy marriage of music and drama, an uncommonly intelligent response to the complementary needs of Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, not to mention those of their theatrical source and political ally, Beaumarchais. This "Figaro" was a serious comedy of eros that allowed no room for intrusive gimmickry, no place for tired cliches.

Tuesday night it was back at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, where quick and frequent revivals are becoming a convenient if potentially lazy way of life. But there were drastic differences this time.

In the pit, the baton had passed from Lawrence Foster to Markus Stenz. Most of the principals were new. Not all the changes were for the better.

The most crucial, and most damaging change, perhaps, involved the conductor. Stenz, who was undertaking his first "Figaro," is a useful guide through the thickets of modernism. Anyone who has witnessed his pioneering work on behalf of Hans Werner Henze knows that. But Henze isn't Mozart, and Mozart seems to bewilder the young German maestro. Perhaps he doesn't go for baroque.

His tempos on Tuesday were, to say the least, erratic. The fast pieces tended toward sluggishness. The relatively slow ones zipped along as if sentiment were a dirty word (it is difficult to imagine "Voi che sapete" less alluring, "Che soave zeffiretto" less languid or "Deh vieni non tardar" less reflective). The recitatives--particularly important in a production that stresses conversational fluidity--tended to drag, and the exaggerated Luftpausen hardly enhanced narrative continuity.

Although Stenz inspired some very pretty playing from the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, it could not be claimed that he accompanied the singers with much sympathy, or that he paid much attention to matters of dramatic impetus or stylistic consistency. Appoggiaturas came and went, mostly went. The high Cs that cap the second-act terzetto were allotted to Susanna, not, as Mozart intended, to the Countess.

One artist on the stage--the Figaro--took the trouble to add some fascinating period embellishment. The rest might just as well have been singing Verdi.

The performance, as in '90, was blissfully complete. It lasted 3 3/4 hours with, thank goodness, only one intermission instead of three. As paced by Stenz, however, it seemed dangerously long.

Under the circumstances, one had to be doubly grateful for Hall's elegantly earnest staging scheme, again re-created--and this time somewhat broadened--by Stephen Lawless. One also could take comfort in the lavish, warmly realistic decors of John Bury, even though they were designed for the smaller stage of the Chicago Lyric Opera.

The major holdover in the uneven cast was Thomas Allen, the intrinsically aristocratic, suavely lecherous, magnificently befuddled Almaviva. This time, unfortunately, histrionic pluses were diminished by vocal minuses, possibly the result of a respiratory problem.

Solveig Kringelborn complemented him as an extraordinarily youthful, radiant, eminently seductive Rosina. The fact that the Norwegian soprano, undertaking this complex role for the first time, happened to be seven months pregnant added a few unintended wrinkles to the dramatic intrigue (previews of "La mere coupable"?). Sympathetic observers gasped when she accidentally tripped and fell during an exit. Luckily, both prima donna and Contessa turned out to be fine.

Gerald Finley, a promising lyric-baritone from Canada, introduced a sly, wide-eyed, strikingly stylish Figaro opposite a smart and winsome new Susanna, Elzbieta Szmytka. Replacing Angela Maria Blasi, the tiny Polish soprano vacillated between sweetness and squeakiness.

Paula Rasmussen, a tall and gangly novice Cherubino, could hardly efface memories of her definitive predecessor, Frederica von Stade. (Who could?) But she held her own nicely, especially in a plush "Non so piu, cosa son, cosa faccio," never flinching from the bold priapic maneuvers invented by the stage director.

Michael Gallup returned as an amiably crusty Don Bartolo, in tandem with Suzanna Guzman's poignantly giddy Marcellina. Jonathan Mack repeated his bravura Basilio, and secondary roles were in the appreciative hands and larynxes of Diana Tash (Barbarina), Mallory Walker (Curzio) and John Atkins (Antonio).

Francis Rizzo's model supertitles matched the vocal lines perfectly. And someone had the good sense to turn them off at the Count's plea for forgiveness. For once, the pathos of this climactic moment was not contradicted by laughter.

* "Le Nozze di Figaro" presented by the Music Center Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Also Saturday at 1 p.m., April 18 and 20 at 7:30 p.m., April 23 at 1 p.m. and April 25 (Richard Bernstein replacing Finley) at 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20 to $105 at box office, (213) 972-7211.

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