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‘Figaro’ cast stars former apprentices

Lisette Oropesa, left, as Susanna, and Susanna Phillips as the Countess, rehearse a scene from “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)
Lisette Oropesa, left, as Susanna, and Susanna Phillips as the Countess, rehearse a scene from “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)
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Mozart’s comic masterpiece is raunchy and rooted in love

From Miss Marple to Bugs Bunny, “The Marriage of Figaro’s” pop culture tendrils extend well beyond its matrimonial hijinks.

The cartoon wabbit once conducted a Looney Tunes version of W.A. Mozart’s overture. Its music inspired Agatha Christie’s knitting detective Miss Marple to solve “The Body in the Library.”

Former music critic George Bernard Shaw praised its “subtle and elaborate comedy.” Charming and even a bit menacing, the story plays off both the class and sexual politics at the heart of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s intricately plotted libretto.

Mozart’s comic masterpiece of scheming principals and mistaken identity opens Saturday, June 29 at the Santa Fe Opera. The cast stars a trio of former Santa Fe apprentices.

If you go
WHAT: “The Marriage of Figaro”WHEN: June 29, July 5 and 10; Aug. 3, 8, 13, 20, 23. Performances start at 8:30 p.m. through July 27; at 8 p.m. July 29-Aug. 24

WHERE: The Santa Fe Opera, seven miles north of Santa Fe west of U.S. 84/285

HOW MUCH: For ticket information call 800-280-4654 or 505-986-5900 or go to www.santafeopera.org

“Figaro” is rooted in love: from raunchy seduction to moonlight serenades. Based on a scandalous and satiric play, it orbits the low-class Figaro and future wife Susanna staying ahead of their master Count Almaviva, who is neglecting his wife and chasing Susanna for a midnight tryst.

Lush with long lines flowing through its glorious arias, “Figaro’s” music is not for the breathing-impaired.

Alabama born-and-raised soprano Susanna Phillips, who plays the Countess Almaviva, knows the Santa Fe drill.

“It’s very hard, especially at this altitude,” she said, relaxing in the opera cantina after lunch. “I’ve been going to the gym every day to get acclimated to the area.”

Besides Phillips, baritone Zachary Nelson will make his SFO debut as the servant Figaro, who is hopelessly in love with Susanna. Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons will tackle the so-called “trouser role” of Cherubino, the adolescent boy whose raging hormones drive him to every skirt in sight.

Zachary Nelson, left, is Figaro and Emily Fons is in the so-called “trouser role” of Cherubino, the coltish page in “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)

Zachary Nelson, left, is Figaro and Emily Fons is in the so-called “trouser role” of Cherubino, the coltish page in “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Santa Fe Opera. (Courtesy of Robert Godwin/the Santa Fe Opera)

“My first experience of singing (Mozart) operas was here,” Phillips said, the velvety folds of the Sangre de Cristos offering a dramatic backdrop. A 2004 apprentice, Phillips has sung at the Metropolitan Opera and Chicago’s Lyric Opera. She has returned to Santa Fe four seasons since her high-altitude debut, singing in a Mozart quartet: “The Magic Flute” in 2006, “Cosi fan Tutte” in 2007, “Don Giovanni” in 2009 and in “The Marriage of Figaro” in 2008.

Phillips sees the countess surviving in a class system that permits adultery, as long as it occurs behind closed doors. The count is in lustful pursuit of Susanna, the countess’ chamber maid, as his wife watches. His lechery is his royal right.

“Her husband is rather dismissive of her,” Phillips said. “She doesn’t expect the public to know about it, and the harm to her dignity is very, very hurtful.”

The two women plot to expose the count’s infidelity by asking Cherubino, the lovestruck page, to dress as a girl and serve as a decoy.

The convoluted courting and plotting still resonate in today’s relationships, Phillips added.

“The relationship between the count and the countess – I think a lot of people share,” she said. “When your partner turns their head somewhere else, what do you do? Do you repair or turn the other way?”

Nelson portrays Figaro, whose sole goal is to marry Susanna. But the count intends to bed her on her wedding night.

“He does know what he wants,” Nelson said of his character. “And what he wants is to marry Susanna. He’ll turn the world on its head if he has to.”

“Figaro” marks Nelson’s SFO debut. He is a recent graduate of the Academy of Vocal Arts in Philadelphia. As an apprentice, he appeared as Angelotti in Santa Fe’s 2012 production of “Tosca.” In 2014 he will make his debut with the Washington National Opera.

“The challenge is to keep in the moment,” he said. “It’s more fun to be a Figaro who can be thinking on his feet. He’s always trying to figure out the best solution.”

“I love this opera,” Nelson added. “It’s clever; the music is glorious. It’s one of my favorites of all time. As soon as you hear that downbeat, you know this is something written by a genius.”

To get used to playing the coltish Cherubino, some of Fons’ friends suggested she put a sock in her pants. As it is, the mezzo-soprano wears the uniform of an 18th-century pageboy – trousers and a vest topped by a tricorn hat.

“I have a bust-binder on,” she added.

Still, she did an informal poll of her male colleagues to research the role of an adolescent male.

“I never knew how important it is (for a boy) to feel like a man,” she said. “When a boy is 12 or 13, he doesn’t want to be seen as a boy. Being embarrassed is the worst thing. (Cherubino) gets embarrassed a lot; he gets told he looks like a girl. He’s desperately in love with every girl he sees. He’s always getting in trouble for it, but he always does it one more time. The countess is his goddess on a pedestal.”

Despite her friends’ suggestions of anatomical enhancement, Fons says her lines read truer when she remains herself. After all, boy bands and teen idols have sported rosy cheeks for decades.

Fons is a graduate of the Ryan Opera Center at Chicago’s Lyric Opera, where she performed in “Carmen” and “The Mikado.”

Mozart composed “The Marriage of Figaro” in 1786 based on a stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais. Its critique of aristocratic entitlement stung. It was banned in Vienna for its licentiousness, but Mozart’s librettist managed to get official approval from Emperor Joseph II for an operatic version. It is now regarded as a cornerstone of the standard operatic repertoire.

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