Married to the Music: The Marriage of Figaro at the Pittsburgh Opera

If there was ever an excited crowd at an opera, it would be the one at the opening night of the Pittsburgh Opera’s “Marriage of Figaro” this 22-23 season. Arguably the best written by the famed composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, “The Marriage of Figaro” has long been a fan-favorite of both opera lovers and singers alike. Especially given the cast’s extensive history with the show (soprano Natasha Te Rupe Wilson has played the leading role of Susanna before in San Francisco and Evan Lazdowski as Antonio has been Figaro in another production), there were already high expectations for this year’s performance. As the lights dimmed, I looked around the theatre. The older crowd waited expectantly in their seats while a cohort of international students clutched pamphlets in different languages on the background of the show. From the get-go, tensions were high.

I am very confident in saying that the Pittsburgh Opera’s “Marriage of Figaro” exceeded all my expectations. From the casting to the set design, I felt that every element was implemented perfectly and executed in a way in which even Mozart would’ve been proud of. Although there were a few dissenting opinions from members I briefly talked to in the donor’s club during intermission, I chalk that up to a “back in my day” mindset (the last the time “The Marriage of Figaro” was performed in Pittsburgh was in 2017). The period-accurate interpretation of the show, which is somewhat out of norm these days, enhanced the viewer’s experience. The Pittsburgh Opera’s “Marriage of Figaro” is what people think when they hear the word: opera.

I will say I try not to research the singers’ profiles beforehand as to come in and let their art do most of the talking. Those who are so caught up in prestige and fame always tend to exaggerate the truth, in my opinion. However, when I say that each and every cast member came in with strength and poise, I truly do mean it. It felt like every member was made for their role. Natasha Te Rupe Wilson’s Susanna in particular was exactly how I envisioned the character—cunning, playful, and headstrong. Michael Sumuel’s titular Figaro completed a perfect pair. They played off each other just how an affectionate and semi-sadistic couple like Figaro and Susanna should. Particularly in scenes where the two would take turns “punishing” the other for being mistrustful, the audience was alive with laughter. One felt so deeply immersed in their relationship after just the first aria.

On the other hand, the Count and Countess, played by Jarrett Ott and Nicole Cabell, excelled as reflections of Figaro and Susanna. Together, they truly became dysfunctional aristocrats, horrible in all their ways yet so, so redeemable even then. Cabell’s performance in particular shocked me the most. While it is usually Susanna who receives the most attention in performances, I felt that Cabell captured the spotlight for her own. She was especially stunning in the period gowns, white-powdered wig and all. In her confrontation scene with the Count in her bedroom, I felt as if I was watching a reality TV show akin to "Keeping Up with the Kardashians" as opposed to a 236-year-old performance. I was truly rooting for her as if I were watching a boxing match by the end of the show.

Perhaps the most impressive spotlight stealer of all was the Pittsburgh Opera’s own resident artist, Jazmine Olwalia as Cherubino. I wish I had the words to accurately describe the feelings I had while watching her performance. Pain, anger, laughter, confusion, disgust? They were all there, and that, I believe, is a true sign of craftsmanship. Never had I ever been so conflicted about a character in an opera in my life. Olwalia perfected the manners of a young boy struck by cupid’s arrow (hence Mozart’s pun in the name). When dressed in drag, Olwalia used physical gags as a way to engage the audience. Even when unprompted, Olwalia stole the audience’s gaze and made the scene much more fascinating than it would’ve previously been. Sumuel’s Figaro was the same, although I found that his Figaro acted sort of like a mentor — perhaps, a slightly more mature version of what Cherubino was.

With costume design, I really think this was a step up from the season opener, “Rusalka.” Many of the gripes I had with “Rusalka” were gone here, thanks to what I believe is probably familiarity with the time period and a bigger budget for a more well-known show. I loved the subtle cueing in the outfits of the three smaller antagonists, the Marcellina, Don Basilio, and Dr. Bartolo. As opposed to the working staff’s plain and simple outfits, the three of them don exaggerated frills and uniquely embroidered linings. This works to differentiate them from our protagonists, while also hinting at their lust for revenge and greedy nature.

Of course, the set design was also beautiful. Highly simplistic, yet highly effective. The use of a stained ivory color to paint the walls was exactly how I envisioned the Count’s mansion. I also loved the ways in which the set was rotated, being used in a multitude of ways that I never even thought possible. The enlarged family tree décor was eventually transformed into the final oak wood garden. I thought that was quite intuitive (special shoutout to set designer, Leslie Travers!).

“The Marriage of Figaro” is simply a must-see. Even for those who have never once thought about setting foot in an opera house, I can assure you, “The Marriage of Figaro” will transform any preconceived notions you’ve ever held on the art form. As I discussed in my interview with Evan Lazdowski in last week’s edition of The Tartan, I think this truly is the perfect first show for anyone of any background. The comedic nature of the show which differs from many of the famous tragedies that make up a lot of opera companies’ repertoire really allows for a casual viewing. Instead of worrying about formal dress code or using sophisticated vocabulary, I urge everyone to buy a discounted student ticket and just enjoy the show!

Through Nov. 5, at the Pittsburgh Opera. “The Marriage of Figaro” continues with further dates on the 8th, 11th, and 13th. Student matinee is on the 10th.