Among the ruins with Mozart and the sound technicians

The Byblos International Festival came to a glorious close Friday night as the Italian Cultural Institute and Lebanon’s Antonine University Choir joined forces under the direction of Luca Valentino with a collaborative production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (“The Marriage of Figaro”).

Conductors Francesco Cilluffo and Toufic Maatouk – directing the Antonine University Orchestra and Chorus, respectively – led a charming interpretation of Mozart’s score.

When combined with Byblos’ idyllic scenery, the stage was set for a perfect evening of opera. Had the production not been compromised by technical failings, and a lackluster staging that often lapsed from understated to dull, it might well have done so.

“Figaro” is among Mozart’s best-loved operas. Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1784 comic play “La dolle journee, ou le Mariage de Figaro,” as adapted for the stage by Mozart’s sometime collaborator, Italian librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, the work was first performed in Vienna in 1786.

The story combines many of those plot conventions deemed hilarious two and a half centuries ago, including but not limited to mistaken identities, cross-dressing and jealous husbands.
The story unfolds over the course of one ill-fated day, when the wedding of Figaro and Susanna, two servants in the palace of Count Almaviva, is almost thwarted by the philandering Count. Almaviva intends to invoke his feudal right to enjoy his servant’s wedding night – that is, his bride – for himself. Figaro thus embarks on a journey of scheming and conniving to win back Susanna from the grasping hands of his employer.

Early warnings foretold an evening of poor production values. Microscopic surtitles (translating the libretto into English) required vigorous squinting by those not privileged with perfect eyesight or orchestra seats.

Furthermore, the surtitles rather awkwardly included stage directions. This might have been forgivable, had they born any relation to the actual stage direction. Too often the projection depicted an action – “He kisses the Countess’ hands repeatedly” or “She boxes his ears” – while the singers stood meters apart from one another, doing something entirely different … usually doing nothing at all.

Valentino’s “Figaro” was a minimalist experience. A simple set boasted only a few items to separate one scene from the next: a chair, a bed, a banister. This was appropriate enough since, in a setting as dramatic as the Byblos ruins, any lavish stage design would have detracted from the natural elegance of the outdoor stage.

The core of Valentino’s minimalism could be found, however, in the direction. Quite lacking in the over-the-top grandeur one might expect from an evening at the opera, the Italian and Lebanese cast abided by a strict rule of less-is-more. They moved only when necessary, betraying only the slightest of physical reactions to the tomfoolery unfolding about them.

Even Cherubino – the womanizing page-boy, played as “Cherubina” by mezzo-soprano Rosa Bove – opted for understated reactions. Each time the enraged Count caught him red-handed, he would only cower ashamedly. Where was the barrel-chested Cherubino who sings odes to his own lust? Why was he replaced by this coy, shy flirt?

To perform an opera in this simple fashion isn’t inappropriate, and can abet the appreciation of the music in a way that a more showy production would not. The major shortfall of Valentino’s “Figaro,” however, was in the distracting technical mistakes.

These failings seemed primarily the fault of the sound technicians. In this amplified performance it was too common for a singer to enter the stage and open his mouth silently, only to have his microphone turned on halfway through a phrase. To have this happen once or twice is understandable – that’s show business. To have it happen repeatedly is simply disappointing.

Fortunately there was no disappointment in the performances. Samar Salamé’s “Susanna” and Toufic Maatouk’s “Figaro” made for a sweet and convincingly loving couple and their voices – radiating purity and innocence – contrasted nicely with that of Raymond Ghattas’ lumbering, philandering Count.

Soprano Caroline Solage’s betrayed and despairing “Countess” stole the show. So powerful and clear was her voice that even lying down on her side for her opening aria (“Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro” – “Grant, love, some comfort”), she managed to show off her impressive command.

Solage’s final aria (“Piú docile io sono” – “I am more kind”), in which the Countess forgives her husband for his trespasses, offered one of the most tender and moving moments of the night.

The Countess forgave her Count but the sound technicians’ trespasses continued through to the opera finale, challenging the audience to do the same.

In the very last minute of the performance, as the leads sang a duo that could have left the audience ecstatic, their impeccable rapport was suddenly interrupted by a rude over-amplification of the strings.

The offending instrument, a violin or viola, rose high above the orchestra, ruining the moment. It was as if some terrible musician had been allowed to join the otherwise professional pit of Maestro Cilluffo with the caveat that his or her microphone be turned off – only to have the levels cruelly reversed at the last moment.

Then, erupting from the back of the stage, what better way to mark the end of a Mozart opera favorite than a blazing display of fireworks? The loud eruptions seemed rather contrary to the spirit of the minimalism of the previous three hours, or perhaps they were simply a celebration of it.

For opera aficionados accustomed to more rarefied stagings of Mozart, there was much to find wanting in Byblos. Audience members were still arriving a full hour into the performance, while others began leaving just 10 minutes after the overture. The technical crew was preternaturally poor. These factors weighed heavily upon Valentino and Cilluffo’s “Figaro.”

On the other hand, the vocalists’ loving interpretation of this much-loved opera, performed in such a glorious setting, with arias mingling with the sound of gently lapping waves, the decision to abandon the surtitles in favor of moon-rise over the illuminated ruins of Byblos – these all reminded Friday night’s audience that there is still some magic in “Figaro.”


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