`Marriage of Figaro' falls short of its legend-sized potential

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When the Paris Opera visited the Metropolitan Opera House to help celebrate the United States bicentennial, it brought along its legendary Giorgio Strehler production of Mozart's ``Le Nozze di Figaro'' (``The Marriage of Figaro''). The evening set new standards theatrically, musically, and vocally, while proving that a large theater is not antipathetic to great Mozart performances. At about the same time, director-designer Jean-Pierre Ponnelle was staging this opera in Europe, where it was said he created a magic and finesse that put one in mind of Strehler. Thus the Metropolitan Opera's new ``Nozze'' with Ponnelle design and direction, which was unveiled last Friday, looked more than promising. Also, Ponnelle and music director James Levine had collaborated on two prior acclaimed Met Mozart projects -- ``Idomeneo'' and ``La clemenza di Tito.'' And this ``Nozze'' was cast with n oted singing actors. Nevertheless, at the final curtain disappointment reigned, because the whole managed to equal far less than the sum of its often honorable parts.

Happily, the singing was on a high level, even if never magnificent. Top honors opening night belonged to Frederica von Stade in the trouser role of Cherubino -- her best role, and a performance that continues to be spontaneous, believably boyish, sensitively (and, this particular evening, beautifully) sung.

Carol Vaness has gained in assurance, poise, and star quality with every new role she has added to her Met repertoire. Her youthful Countess was effectively acted and sung with her now-familiar blend of cool restraint and security of line.

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Kathleen Battle's Susanna reached its loveliest peak in her intimate rendering of the fourth-act aria ``Deh vieni, non tardar.'' Elsewhere, her soft-grained soprano failed to project sufficiently well to be consistently audible.

The Figaro of basso Ruggero Raimondi was directed by Ponnelle to be almost aggressively defiant, but he sang heartily and acted engagingly within the confines of the directorial concept. Sad to say, the Count of baritone Thomas Allen (elsewhere heard as an engaging Papageno in ``The Magic Flute'') here had little impact vocally or histrionically. Mr. Levine's expertly gauged conducting stressed forward motion, orchestral textures, and the long Mozart musical line.

Unfortunately, Mr. Ponnelle chose to frame this often-intimate opera with a massive, and finally oppressive, wall -- a sort of square-columned crumbling faade -- broken in the center by a large archway which in turn framed the narrow-but-deep playing area. So awkward was the playing area that many telling dramatic moments occurred out of the sightlines of those not seated in or near the center of the audi-torium.

As with all of designer Ponnelle's recent productions, this ``Nozze'' was relentlessly monochromatic -- all blacks, whites, and grays. Even the exquisite costumes were overpowered by the oppressive unit set. (Ironically, the production should look very good on TV when it is seen next April 23 in a PBS ``Live From the Met'' simulcast: In close-up, the wall will not be a factor.)

Finally, the heaviness of the setting was mirrored in the heavy-handedness of the direction. It should be noted that the Beaumarchais play on which the opera is based was considered dangerously revolutionary in its day: How could a comedy in which the noblity is outsmarted by its servants be popular with royalty? Director Ponnelle chose to ignore this vital half of Mozart's masterwork in favor of now-charming, now-mindless farce. He turned these complex, multifaceted characters into shallow creatures, and, finally, sadly shortchanged Mozart.

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