November 05, 2020

Sir Andrew Davis and The Marriage of Figaro: A Perfect Match

Lyric’s music director, Sir Andrew Davis, has a long history with Mozart, and especially with Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) on the Lyric Opera House stage. As Lyric continues its final year of Davis’s tenure as music director, let’s take a look back at the Figaro productions that have provided us exceptional pleasure, both onstage and in the pit, under the baton of our beloved Sir Andrew Davis.

Sir Andrew Davis hosting a master class with Ryan Opera Center's Ensemble pianist, Chris Reynolds, on The Marriage of Figaro music.

The Marriage of Figaro has been presented in ten different seasons at Lyric. The company premiere in 1957 was conducted by Georg Solti, who became music director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (1969-1991). Figaro returned to Lyric in 1960, 1962, and 1975 before Davis made his company debut with it in the 1987/88 Season. Directed by Sir Peter Hall and designed by John Bury, that season’s production originated at Glyndebourne in the 1970s and soon came to be closely associated with Lyric, described by the Chicago Tribune as “beautiful to look at, full of high spirits but alive to the warmly human emotions that make Mozart's music so astonishing every time we hear it.”

When asked about Sir Peter Hall’s production, Sir Andrew Davis said this: “The Figaro is a complete classic. [Hall] really understood the piece and understood its extraordinary complexities between the characters more than any other production I’ve seen. Plus, he genuinely loved and knew the music so well. Peter was such a joy to work with because he would work with such great detail and with such wisdom and insight.”

Maestro Davis’s first Figaro in Chicago became one of the most-remembered productions in Lyric history. Samuel Ramey starred in the title role opposite Maria Ewing (Hall’s wife at the time) as Susanna, with Felicity Lott’s Countess, Ruggero Raimoni’s Count, and Frederica von Stade’s Cherubino filling out the starry cast. Sir Andrew Davis looks back on his first production with Lyric very fondly. “I don’t think anyone has been a better Cherubino than Frederica in the history of time,” says Davis. “Getting the women’s trio in Figaro right is very important. The three need to have electricity, and this trio of Maria, Felicity, and Frederica was fantastic.” The production received critical acclaim for its direction and conducting, returning as a highlight of Lyric’s 1991/92, 1997/98, 2003/04, and 2009/10 seasons.

Sir Peter Hall's production of The Marriage of Figaro from the 1997/98 Season.

Of these revivals of Sir Peter Hall’s production, Sir Andrew Davis returned to conduct the opera in the 1991/92, 2003/04, and 2009/10 seasons. Samuel Ramey reprised his Figaro in the 1991/92 revival, establishing a “dream Figaro team” for Lyric audiences. “Sam was and is one of the great stars of Lyric,” says Davis. “He is a good Figaro, a strong personality on the stage, and a real hard worker.” As John von Rhein of the Chicago Tribune wrote at the time, “Those who admired Peter Hall`s production when it was new in 1987 will be happy to know that it is just as fine, and perhaps even finer, the second time around, with several worthy newcomers joining what was before a near-definitive ensemble of singing actors.” Marie McLaughlin and Janice Hall portrayed Susanna, William Shimell portrayed the Count, Susanne Mentzer shared the role of Cherubino with von Stade, Lott returned as the Countess, and Felicity Palmer popped in as Marcellina.

Sir Peter Hall's production of The Marriage of Figaro from the 1997/98 Season.

Sir Andrew Davis was named Lyric’s music director in 2000 (and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth the year before) and returned to The Marriage of Figaro in the 2003/04 season with the same production. Says Davis on this mounting of the production; “Peter Mattei is a fantastic artist and was a great Count. And this was an interesting production because we ended up having multiple Ryan Opera Center artists in small roles [Nicole Cabell and Lauren Curnow] come back to the production in 2009/10 as major artists. It was great to see that growth.” The Chicago Tribune noted that year that “under Davis's brisk, stylish baton… There were moments in the nearly four-hour performance that were pure Mozart, and moments of pure singing."

Bayrakdarian, Swenson, Tigges and Mattei in Lyric's 2003/04 production of The Marriage of Figaro

Peter Mattei and Nicole Cabell in Lyric's 2003/04 production of The Marraige of Figaro

In the final production in the 2009/10 Season, the Countess role was opened by Anna Schwanewilms, then portrayed by Ryan Opera Center alumna Nicole Cabell, and later by Amanda Majeski, who was a current Ryan Opera Center Ensemble member at the time. The production also featured the beloved Joyce DiDonato as Cherubino. The Tribune’s John von Rhein noted that when the production “returned to the company..., there was a sparkle and vitality about it I don’t recall having witnessed since this ‘Nozze di Figaro’ was new.”

Mariusz Kwiecien, Danielle de Niese, Joyce DiDonato, and Keith Jameson in Lyric's 2009/10 production of The Marriage of Figaro

Act Three of Lyric's 2009/10 production of The Marriage of Figaro

“Whatever opera you’re casting, you have to find a cast that really works together and balances well,” says Davis. “Especially in Figaro. You really need to get it right because it is such an ensemble piece. At its core, Figaro is all about human nature and how we treat each other. That’s why it's one of my favorite operas and one of the world's favorite operas.”

Sir Andrew Davis's work in these four renditions of Sir Peter Hall’s production solidified Davis as a leading Mozart interpreter. Surprisingly, Maestro Davis has only conducted Figaro one other time outside of Lyric, which was at Glyndebourne in 1991, but his work with Mozart operas runs the gamut over the last four decades. “Every time you conduct it, you find new things in Figaro,” says Davis, “and one always wants to approach anything as if it's the first time. It’s like when you read certain books; each time you’ll find something that wasn’t there before. I hope my insights and ability to bring everything together in the opera have increased over the years.”

While Lyric audiences won’t be able to hear Sir Andrew Davis conduct The Marriage of Figaro one last time as Lyric’s music director this spring, they can still watch him conduct master classes with Lyric’ 2020/21 Ryan Opera Center Ensemble members on various roles within the opera. Check out Master Classes with Sir Andrew Davis available now on Lyric’s Facebook page and YouTube channel.

Photos: Lyric Opera of Chicago, Robert Kusel, Dan Rest, Todd Rosenberg