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With Seán Martinfield

Seán Martinfield
Photo(s) by Luke Thomas


By Seán Martinfield

June 22, 2006

The San Francisco Opera presents Mozart's THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO as its final offering in this 2006 Summer Season. As many a series often ends with a wedding, it was most appropriate and fortuitous that this "Return of the Divas" proved to be a honeymoon suite for newly installed General Director David Gockley. Last Thursday night the packed house at the War Memorial saw an unexpected march down this 18th Century aisle - not for "Figaro", but for his rapacious master, Spanish grandee "Count Almaviva". Falling out of the glossy program/magazine, one of those half-page quickly xeroxed flyers announcing a replacement. Now what. At least on NYC's Broadway the producers offer "Performer's Insurance" for name-above-the-title no-shows.

"The role of Countess Almaviva in tonight's performance will be sung by Melody Moore."

As this season's one-and-only "Kate Pinkerton", the innocent quasi-villainess of the season's opener, MADAMA BUTTERFLY, Ms. Moore has an asterisk by her name indicating this brief appearance marks her San Francisco Opera Debut. As a current Adler Fellow and former Merola Opera Program participant, she turned in a wonderful and most sympathetic performance. The crowds viewing the Opening Night simulcast over at Civic Center Plaza certainly thought so - affectionately hissing her character at the curtain call on screen, but enthusiastically applauding her rushed-over on-stage call at the plaza. The "Butterfly" program listed impressive academic credits including her appearances as Mozart's "Countess" with the Merola Program along with the fact that she had "covered the role" (another way of saying "understudied") at the Los Angeles Opera and had actually performed it at the final dress rehearsal. Good for her! Good for us.

With Mr. Gockley's assignment of pushing the San Francisco Opera toward a healthier financial picture (and, thus, in all fairness - attracting and affording some hugely-salaried stellar pipes), the collectivity signing the very qualified Melody Moore (for the smallest and most thankless of minor roles in all of the Soprano repertoire) made a wise and practical, and most lovely choice. Turns out, she was also signed for the same position as she enjoyed in Los Angeles - that being, the rehearsal cover as "The Countess" for our returning divas, Ruth Ann Swenson and Twyla Robinson (still scheduled for Friday, June 30th), each with a history of major roles and international appearances. A golden opportunity for Ms. Moore, to be sure, since not every soprano-type Adler Fellow has the chance to develop and refine her craft while standing-in with the internationally renowned and much-recorded conductor, Roy Goodman. From 7:30 to 11:00, Maestro Goodman sustained a marathon-like endurance, keeping his orchestra nimble and electric, and the delightful cast focused and well-paced, ever-mindful of the vocal challenges yet to come.

Melody Moore more than distinguished herself come her Countess' most demanding challenge - the Act 3 aria, "Dove sono i bei momenti" - "Where are they, the beautiful moments of sweetness and pleasure?" She had already proved herself as both musician and actress throughout Acts 1 and 2, displaying pathos, warmth, and humor to her maid "Susanna" (Cora Burggraaf) and conflicted sexual vitality and vulnerability to both youthful admirer "Cherubino" (a "pants role", captured superbly by Claudia Mahnke) and to husband, "Count Almaviva" (rapturous baritone Tommi Hakala, looking quite superb in his own pants). Throughout the lengthy finale of Act 2, Ms. Moore's voice remained sweet and steady, supporting growing harmonies with fellow co-stars while maintaining her character's Identity and agenda. Even so, there was still much for her to accomplish after Intermission. The Countess' aria, "Dove sono", is to a soprano performing in a world class Opera House what the quadruple spin represents to an Olympic skater competing for the Gold. You either have it and can execute it under pressure - or not. Melody Moore does and did. It was the security of her carefully measured legato and the ease and grace of her delicately approached climaxes that won our hearts. With the final beat, Ms. Moore wafts off stage, Maestro Goodman stops the orchestra, the audience goes nuts with applause and shoutings of "Brava!" It was even louder and longer during her solo curtain call. She was gracious and ebullient with appreciation.

As one whose film library includes Peter Shaffer's brilliant and fanciful AMADEUS, I am most appreciative of the scene involving Mozart's passionate defense of his secretly-penned and allegedly non-threatening musical treatment of the Beaumarchais play, banned by Austrian Emperor, Joseph II. His reason for censoring? "It is a bad play."

"It stirs up hatred between the classes," he says. "In France it has caused nothing but bitterness. My own dear sister Antoinette writes me that she is beginning to be frightened of her own people."

Mozart counters, claiming that not only does he hate politics personally, his libretto contains nothing that might cause offense. Not convinced, the emperor suggests that Mozart is politically naïve. "In such dangerous times," he insists, "I cannot afford to provoke our Nobles or Our People, simply over a theatre piece."

Confident of his own genius and the political enlightenment his composition will provide to the masses, Mozart shifts the Emperor's attention from revolution to the radical musical innovations he has introduced within the score and how his "Figaro" will put Austria's stamp on the operatic world, still so dominated by the Italians and made ridiculous by its continuous employment of castrated male sopranos. Having tweaked the Royal Ear, Mozart goes on.

"It's so new that people will go mad for it! The end of the second act, for example. It starts out with a simple duet. A husband and a wife quarrelling. Suddenly the wife's scheming little maid comes in - a very funny situation! Duet turns into trio! Then the husband's valet comes in. He's plotting with the maid. Trio turns into quartet! Then a stupid old gardener comes in. Quartet becomes quintet. And so on! On and on. Sextet! Septet! Octet! How long do you think I can sustain that, Majesty?"

Emperor Joseph hasn't a clue.

Twenty minutes! A non-stop perfect harmony. Sold!

Four years after the 1786 premiere of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO at Vienna's Burgtheatre, the Emperor died of mysterious circumstances and was quickly entombed next to his mother, Empress Maria Theresa. His anxious heart, however, rests in a silver urn at Vienna's Augustinian Chapel. A year later, Mozart succumbed to a still-unidentified disease. The exact location of his remains is uncertain, but a statue of a saddened angel stands watch in a time-honored area. The emperor's sister - Marie Antoinette, Queen of France - was right about fearing her people, even though the play was staged at Versailles and she performed the role of "Rosina". Within less than two years of Mozart being dumped into a common grave, the citizenry of Paris watched the severed head of their former queen fall into a basket. As a six year old child prodigy, Mozart had visited the Austrian palace where he gazed into the then seven year old eyes of Archduchess Maria Antonia and demanded, "Will you marry me, yes or no?"

Back to "The Marriage" and its revolutionary components.

Way beyond the emperor's problem with its "too many notes", is the existence of a nearly forgotten, very disturbing and controlling notion which - even when set to glorious music - certainly provoked the peoples and disturbed the nobles. It is "Droit de seigneur", French for "the lord's right" and its Latin equivalent, "Jus primae noctis", i.e., "law of the first night". Both terms describe the ancient legal right and very-established tradition (certainly in Spain) that the Lord of the Manor, i.e., "Count Almaviva", has free sexual access to all his female serfs. Whether as married women or the virgin on her Wedding Night, any woman living on his estate is his personal property to do with as he pleases. An idea certainly evidenced on the plantations of our own country.

"Figaro" will have none of it. He is determined that his marriage to the innocent "Susanna" will not be compromised or sullied by anyone of any rank, of any station - not through games of seduction, certainly not through any manner of tyranny. Add to the mix - it is "Count Almaviva" who will perform their legally recognized marriage. As presented to a largely Catholic society, nowhere in the entire libretto of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO will one find the words: church, priest, sacrament, god or even a vain exclamation of "jesuschrist!" The practicality of The Marriage Law of 1783 - that marriage is a Civil Act, that it prioritizes emotional bondings over any issues involving personal properties or religious persuasions - is immediately apparent in every syllable of the opera's recitative, through every one of its long-winded arias, cutting loud and clear through a cacophony of lyrics in every musically harmonious ensemble.

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's most selling point of argument to Emperor Joseph II - "It's a piece about love!"

Two hundred and twenty years later, THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO has been beautifully mounted at the San Francisco War Memorial Opera House - located across the street from its City Hall … where marriage and civil rights and the practicality of legalized emotional bondings will one day find their perfect harmony.

There are five more chances to celebrate the nuptials:
Sat. June 24, 2:30 pm
Tue. June 27, 7:30 pm
Thu. June 29, 7:30 pm
Fri. June 30, 8 pm
Sun. July 2, 2 pm

Order tickets on-line at: http://www.sfopera.com/opera.asp?o=229
Box Office: (415) 864-3330




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