Just so you'll know my biases, it makes me queasy and ultimately furious when a stage director so kidnaps a beloved opera like Marriage of Figaro and foists his irrelevant and ultimately unfunny stage bits on the audience as if we have no knowledge of the original, that Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte get lost in the process. And that is precisely what happens here in this production from the Paris Opera, originally seen, if I'm not mistaken, at the Salzburg Festival (whose recent fetish for the Eurotrashing of opera is well-known and thought by many to be utterly reprehensible). There is, on the second DVD, a fatuous and self-regarding series of interviews with stage director Marthaler and others that try to convince us that the updating would have appealed to Mozart. Really?
The production is set in the present time -- more or less -- and just to show you how confused it is I'll focus primarily on the first act. The opening scene which is supposed to take place in a room in the Count's castle where Figaro and his bride Susanna will reside after their wedding, takes place rather in an unfurnished nondescript space that seems to be just outside a marriage bureau where betrothed couples are seen coming and going. During 'Non so piu' a stagehand carries in the chair behind which Cherubino will later hide. Why wasn't it already on the stage? And why did the flow of the music shudder to a complete halt for at least thirty seconds, not once but twice, while the stagehand is there. I suppose if the stage action were funny or meaningful we wouldn't notice but this, believe me, this is just a chair being placed on stage. Why, when they are singing about a ribbon, do Cherubino and Susanna play tug of war with a pair of panty hose? Why does Don Curzio have a horrible stammer? Why, in the second act finale, is Figaro munching Lay's potato chips? And worst of all, why are the accompaniments to recitatives rewritten so that they are handed out to instruments like the bassoon, or to blown-upon beer bottles. And why is there a 'recitativist' (Jürg Kienberger) who is onstage most of the time (although not acknowledged), accompanying most of the recitatives on an portable electric keyboard which he embellishes from time to time with a caterwauling falsetto?
None of this would bother me quite so much if this were otherwise a negligible musical performance, but in fact the young cast assembled here (and accompanied beautifully by Sylvain Cambreling leading the Paris Opéra orchestra and chorus) is first-rate. Best of all is Christine Schäfer as a very believably boyish Cherubino. She really does look like a teen-age boy (perhaps more like fourteen than seventeen, but still ...) and she sings like an angel. The Figaro of Lorenzo Regazzo is both naturally acted and artfully sung. The Count of Peter Mattei is his equal. Susanna is the always dependable Heidi Grant Murphy, the Countess sung in a creamy soprano by Christiane Oelze. Not only are they fine in their respective arias, but they are excellent (and with wonderful vocal blending) in the many ensembles of the work. Secondary roles are performed equally well. I found myself enjoying the production much better when I wasn't looking at the screen and simply focusing on the music. (For what it's worth, I would be willing to have this performance on CD. But I intend to give this DVD away because I know I'll never make myself watch it again.)
For those of you who are not bothered by the silliness described above (or by the 'recitativist' playing between the third and fourth acts an interpolated ditty by Mozart on the glass harmonica), this might be for you. For those of you who are traditionalists, this is one to avoid. Which is a shame because of the musical values that inhere to this performance. For musical reasons alone, I give this DVD three stars. That's an average between the stage production (one star) and the musical production (five stars).