What do you do when the venue for your production of “The Marriage of Figaro” has the ambiance of an average high school auditorium and only slightly better acoustics? If you’re the Boston Lyric Opera creative team, you start by dressing the conductor in a black T-shirt with “FIGARO” on the back in white letters that blaze at the audience through the railing of the small sunken orchestra pit. You roll out John Conklin’s unfussy sets of raw wood and freestanding doors. Finally, you bring out a cast of singers so marvelous that one would be lucky to hear them do “Marriage of Figaro” anywhere they offered it.
The opera is one of Mozart’s finest works, a madcap comedy of lies, intrigue, and love replete with many-threaded ensemble numbers, some of the finest patter songs pre-Gilbert and Sullivan, and characters that require not just fine singers, but singers who can act. BLO delivered on this count for their production, which is mounted at John Hancock Hall at the Back Bay Events Center. Bass-baritone Evan Hughes made his BLO debut as a dashing, determined Figaro, swaggering through confident arias with superb vocal and physical presence. The spry-voiced soprano Emily Birsan was a delightful and streetwise Susanna, and her skeptical look of disgust toward the slimier male characters brought the house down in laughter more than once. Even where the surtitles failed, as they did on a few occasions, all that needed to be communicated was written on her face.
Baritone David Pershall as the would-be philandering Count Almaviva held his own vocally, but was consistently overshadowed by the comic genius and energy of Michelle Trainor’s stentorian Marcellina, Sara Womble’s bubbly Barbarina, Matthew DiBattista’s unctuous Basilio, and David Cushing’s shrewd Don Bartolo. (Someone give that man a BLO lead role already.)
The action was moved from the 18th century to a 1950s that existed in the intersection of classic Hollywood and a Brechtian dream. Stage director Rosetta Cucchi’s vision included a layout of the Almaviva villa in chalk on the stage floor, and angled mirrors above the stage letting the audience see which character was standing where at any point. From a story perspective it made sense; a story with this many characters has many angles from which it can be considered. However, because the action didn’t follow within the chalk lines of the villa, it ceased to be a helpful device and became one more thing on the already busy stage. Under the baton of David Angus, the orchestral sound was lush but lean, rarely covering up the singers unless they were far upstage. Brett Hodgdon propelled the plot-driving recitatives on the fortepiano, adding some contemporary touches like a cellphone ringtone as someone called the Count.
The true stars of the evening were two women making their first appearances on the BLO stage — with any luck, the first of many for both. Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons was a gloriously gangly cowboy-hatted Cherubino, serenading Susanna and the Countess with a heartfelt love song and stumbling through push-ups and mock army drills during Figaro’s gleeful “Non più andrai.” Soprano Nicole Heaston was a radiant Countess, her warm voice carrying hints of wisdom, mischief, and sorrow. She slowly pulled back the volume of her voice at the climax of her tenderly devastating “Dove sono i bei momenti,” but lost not an ounce of poignancy or power. Her onstage chemistry with Birsan as Susanna was the production’s most exciting, and the way their voices melded and played off each other was stunning. “The Marriage of Figaro” is a love story and comedy, but Birsan and Heaston reminded us that it is a story about the power of female friendship as well. Maybe soon, the BLO will have a permanent venue as opera-friendly as their voices deserve.
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO
Boston Lyric Opera. At John Hancock Hall, Back Bay Events Center. Repeats May 3, 5, and 7. www.blo.org, 617-542-6772.
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten. Madonna’s work is supported by the Rubin Institute for Music Criticism, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and Ann and Gordon Getty Foundation.