This season’s run of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera, opening December 6, is conducted by Harry Bicket, a Mozartean master with experience leading both traditional orchestras and early-music ensembles. In advance of Figaro’s season premiere, Bicket spoke with the Met’s Jay Goodwin about finding the right balance for Mozart at the Met.
Le Nozze di Figaro is one of the most beloved works in the operatic canon. What keeps audiences coming back to this piece?
Well, the opera is about a lot of things—social class, of course, and it has resonances of the French Revolution and many other 18th-century concerns. But at its essence, it’s about what it means to love somebody, or what it means to love someone who doesn’t love you. It’s the human condition. Human emotions have not changed, and these situations are ones that most people can connect with. And, of course, the music speaks so directly that you get it immediately.
How do you keep it fresh when musicians and audiences are so familiar with it?
I always try to approach the piece as though I don’t know it, as though it’s brand new. There are lots of historical barnacles that have gradually been attached to Figaro over the years. So I try to think, if I didn’t know this piece, what would it say to me, and how would I approach it? And I think most orchestras are actually very grateful to take a familiar work and try different things.
Performance practice for Mozart has evolved quite a bit over the past several decades, thanks in part to the historically informed performance movement. Does that inform what you do at the Met?
I’ve done a lot of Handel with the Met Orchestra, so we have a history of achieving a certain kind of sound and a certain kind of electricity. I very much approach Mozart through that prism. In other words, I don’t look back for Mozart, I look forward to him, because so much of the other repertoire I do is earlier than that. That’s helpful because it gives you much better insight into how incredibly revolutionary the music was.
How do you balance the scale of a large house like the Met with musically intimate works like Figaro?
You don’t try to overcome the audience with big blasts of sound, but rather try to draw them into the intimacy of the piece. We accept that a Mozart orchestra is not a Verdi orchestra, and it shouldn’t sound like one. And as an audience, you don’t feel cheated because something is light and transparent. If anything, it actually elevates the joy and the sorrow, and everything in the music.