FAIRFAX, Va., April 19, 2013 – Funny, light, and lively, loaded with energy and crackling with wit, the Virginia Opera’s current production of Wolfgang Mozart’s comic opera The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) turns this beloved old warhorse into a comic confection that’s refreshingly new. Opening Friday evening for two performances only at GMU’s Center for the Arts, this well-sung, well-directed, and visually attractive production was heartily appreciated by an audience that braved spectacular thunderstorms, high winds, and flash floods to see it.
Based on a then-controversial 18th century drama by French author, businessman, and adventurer Pierre Beaumarchais, The Marriage of Figaro is a comedy of errors, a tale or real and imagined infidelity that ultimately leads to patented Mozartian forgiveness and a happy, if somewhat chastened ending.
As the opera opens, we learn that Count Almaviva has designs on the delightful Susanna, the Countess Rosina’s maidservant and soon-to-be wife of the Count’s valet, the wily Figaro. Formerly known as the “Barber of Seville” (and later made even more famous via Rossini’s eponymous opera), Figaro had previously helped the Count win Rosina’s hand. But among the upper classes, gratitude toward the peasantry only goes so far—not only in Mozart’s time but, sadly, in our own.
Our philandering count has already tired of his lovely wife and is currently on the lookout for fresh game. To keep Susanna available for himself, the Count schemes to force Figaro’s marriage to the irritating—and much older—Marcellina. But the always-alert Figaro and Susanna plot with the long-suffering Countess to bring their boss’s extracurricular activities to an end, allowing Figaro’s marriage to take place. In a side-plot, the hormone-made teenage boy, Cherubino, madly infatuated with the Countess, keeps materializing at just the wrong time to complicate matters.
The Virginia Opera’s Figaro deftly negotiates plot, music, and drama, largely due to its surprisingly congenial cast, its cleverly designed period set, and the thoughtful wizardry of Lillian Groag’s inspired but nearly invisible direction. Groag correctly identifies the timeless commedia dell’arte touches in this comic opera, reminding us of the fact by introducing an unscripted pair of traditionally attired mimes who silently introduce the various scenes. Knowing when to stop before this device becomes intrusive simply adds to the magical lightness of the production.
Groag’s direction is helped considerably by Peter Dean Beck’s sets, which deftly accomplish two key objectives. First, and perhaps most importantly for fans of traditionally staged opera, the sets, which morph to suit the settings for each of the opera’s four acts, create the impression of a modest 18th century palace without unnecessarily getting into expensive period detail.
Second, however, and more important to those who focus purely on the music, the sets push the action—and the singers—considerably forward on the stage for the most part, helping the singers to be heard clearly while adding to the intimacy of an opera that, in the end, is a warmly humorous classical-era sitcom focusing on a single, dysfunctional, extended family.
Howard Tsvi Kaplan’s charming period costumes add to the period mood and Bradley King’s lighting designs for the most part enhance the look and feel as well, save for one or two points during which the lighting seemed to miss the action’s focal point.
With direction, staging, lighting, and costuming already close to perfect, all anyone needed on Friday evening was a cast of singers who could bring this marvelous opera home along with an orchestra that would help them be at their best. Once again, this production scored on both points, fielding a cast of principals that genuinely appeared to enjoy being together—something that considerably added to the overall happy mood of the production.
Although Figaro is allegedly about, well, Figaro, Mozart’s take on the story is an ensemble effort that actually gives some of the best moments to the other characters.
As Almaviva, baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson was in fine form on opening night. His mellow, well-supported instrument conveyed real authority, along with occasional detours of insecurity when his nefarious plots go awry. His interpretation of the Count’s dramatic Act II aria, “Vedro, mentr’io sospiro, felice un servo mio?” (roughly, “While I’m miserable, I should see my servant happy?”), deftly blended genuine outrage with comic frustration.
The Count, in many ways, is the driving force of this particular opera, as everyone else, it seems, is scheming against him to thwart is somewhat bumbling evildoing while actually helping him get back to the path of moral righteousness that Mozart always seemed to prefer. Mr. Nicholson fortunately, proved adept as a comic actor as well, demonstrating an impeccable sense of timing, particularly in Act III where he encountered a pesky shade that seems to have spent some time inside a Warner Brothers cartoon.
While the Count gets some great musical moments, however, Mozart—who himself always enjoyed female company most of all—wrote some of his best music in this opera to the Countess Rosina and Susanna, sung in Friday’s performance by sopranos Katherine Whyte and Anne-Carolyn Bird respectively.
Ms. Whyte’s Countess Rosina was surprisingly cool and elegant, save for her frantic bedchamber scene in Act II where pretty much every character ends up flying off the handle. Her phrasing was impeccable, her honey like soprano voice conveying considerable emotional depth and understanding as she expressed again and again the quiet sorrow of a faithful wife who still genuinely loves her philandering husband. Her quiet, gently emotional delivery of Mozart’s heartbreaking yet ravishing “Dove sono i bei momenti” (“Are those wonderful moments over?”) grounded the opera’s largely comic tone in the genuine spiritual impulse that provides it with its real heart and soul.
As Susanna, Anne-Carolyn Bird seemed at times to be Rosina’s lower-class twin, experiencing the same emotions at times but always craftily searching for a way out—something that Figaro, her husband-to-be, is famous for. Ms. Bird’s Susanna actually balances the Countess’ understandable frustration with energy, hope, and optimism, igniting the same spirit in Rosina.
As an actress, Ms. Bird is adept at physical comedy. But this is balanced by a rich and surprisingly commanding instrument that delivers the same kind of brashness and confidence. Combined with clear diction, she delivered a marvelous interpretation of her role. Better yet, both she and Ms. Whyte were perfectly twinned whenever they got a chance to combine in duet.
As we’ve already noted, Figaro himself takes something of a back seat in this opera whose initial box office, at least, was likely driven by his fame and notoriety.
Figaro was such a popular and controversial character back in the day. In the first story of Beaumarchais’ dramatic trilogy, he was by far the biggest star, almost singlehandedly making everything turn out just right for every character except for the bad guys.
But in Mozart’s spin on the second part of his story, it’s Figaro who’s beleaguered by a host of devilish problems, so it’s up to his fiancé and the Countess to return the favor and bail him out. What operagoers get in return for their favorite character’s slight demotion is a rich ensemble opera where nearly every singer gets a chance to shine.
That said, Matthew Burns’ Figaro retains the former barber’s sunny character and adaptable wit, lightening even the heaviest scenes he blunders into. Likely helping Mr. Burns’ interpretation is the fact that he’s also the real-life husband of Ms. Bird, his onstage bride, which helps to bring a useful warmth—and an occasional brashness—into their scenes together. It’s great chemistry and once again helps put this production well above the ordinary. Better yet, Mr. Burns’ flexible bass-baritone seems to wrap itself deftly around the mood of each scene as he alternates moments of great vocal bravado to mocking bars of falsetto when he’s joking about one of the female character’s latest moves.
Aside from Figaro’s four major roles, the most prominent secondary role goes to Cherubino, the barely pubescent boy whose Y-chromosome proclivities seem already to rival those of the Count. (Which is likely why the Count finds the boy so supremely irritating. Diminutive mezzo-soprano Karin Mushegain does a terrific job in this trouser role, with a voice as bright as a silvery bell and with a boyish swagger that emphasizes the comedy in every scene in which she appears.
Also notable was the performance of mezzo-soprano Margaret Gawrysiak as the scheming Marcellina, an unpleasant character who unwittingly brings with her a crucial surprise. (Or two.) We recall with delight her evil yet comic turn as the Witch in last season’s Virginia Opera staging of Hansel and Gretel. She brought the same vocal and comic virtues to bear in Friday’s performance of Figaro along with a gleaming, polished instrument that gives her role an unaccustomed elegance that aids in the believability of her later conversion from the Dark Side.
In smaller but still key roles, soprano Ashley Logan was a charming if slightly (but intentionally) gawkish Barbarina; bass Jeffrey Tucker was a broadly comic and perfectly buffo Dr. Bartolo; tenor Drew Duncan was a funny, nasally Don Basilio; tenor Patrick O’Halloran was an excellent Don Cursio, particularly in the lengthy and substantial Act III ensemble; and bass Aaron Ingersoll, looking remarkably like a character out of “Duck Dynasty,” was thoroughly amusing (and odiferous) as the perpetually drunk gardener Antonio—ruffled dignity and all.
Wrapping this Figaro into Mozart’s finely crafted musical tapestry was the job of Maestro Steven Smith. Working with members of the Richmond Symphony—which he directs during its regular season—Mr. Smith put together a near-perfect Mozartian sound, robust yet delicate, willowy and beautiful yet bristling with moments of comedy when the action and the score required it.
Best of all, the ensemble worked with, and not against, the singers onstage, always a key issue, particularly in the case of the Virginia Opera, whose productions wander from its home base in Norfolk to the wilds of Fairfax County, and ultimately downstate to Richmond.
Rating: *** ½ (Three and one-half stars).
Virginia Opera’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro wraps up its stay in Fairfax tomorrow with a Sunday (April 21) matinee performance at 2 p.m. at GMU’s Center for the Arts. Tickets: $48-98. Call 888-945-2468 or visit the GMU CFA website. http://cfa.gmu.edu
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