in: Reviews

February 4, 2017

Timeless Figaro Impresses

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Susanna (Arianna Paz) worries that her wedding to her beloved Figaro won’t go as planned. (Photography by Asia Stewart)

Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue—these wedding necessities were on display (in their own way) at Harvard Opera Company’s Le Nozze di Figaro Friday night, part of a run celebrating the company’s 25th Anniversary.

Mozart’s Figaro contains two weddings, as well as healthy helpings of comedy and social commentary. Amid its laughs and heartfelt moments are lyrics—from throwaway lines to soliloquies – on the battle of the sexes that enjoy perennial import. This concept of timelessness was realized in Stage Director Joule Voelz’s decision to dress her characters in costumes from many different time periods, the effect of which this reviewer was skeptical upon reading in the program, but was convinced upon seeing the harmonious flow of fashions throughout the plot. That this idea to make an “anti-period piece” (Voelz’s own description) owes much to our modern hyper-meta entertainment tastes, shows how borrowing from our time is a way to express all time in a story from old times.

The hodgepodge of costumes worked because of how all the characters dressed in grayscale, and even the set itself featured gray stone walls and a black-and-white checkered floor, implying the eternal chess game played between lovers. The color monotony was relieved only by the the freedom symbolized by the open blue sky behind the balcony.

Keeping in mind the fact that the Harvard Opera Company exists as a completely undergraduate organization, from pit to singers to crew, the production constituted a monumental undertaking and a solid success. All performers had to contend with the relatively dead acoustic of the Agassiz Theater, but they gave their all and had a very appreciative audience to cheer them on. Everyone performed at least commendably, but real standouts often came from surprising places.

The Count (James Lesu’i) accuses the Countess (Christina Bianco) of infidelity. (Photography by Asia Stewart)

All in the pit played well and responded to conductor Sasha Scolnik-Brower’s energetic, though often large, beat. Throughout the opera it was the double reed section that merited the most praise—in particular principal bassoon Steven Ekert. Impeccable intonation, delicate phrasing and a real feel for the style made players Ekert, Reuben Stern, Harrison Besser, and Rachel Clemens shine. Christopher Grills’s inventive and playful continuo bridged the gap between pit and stage, allowing the harpsichord to become nearly an extra on the set through tasteful improvisations that mirrored the characters’ moods. Scolnik-Brower’s knowledge of the score was evident but on more than one occasion he tended to his orchestra when it was his singers who really needed his guidance.

One never got the feeling that any of the singers was miscast, but again as in the orchestra, the lights that shone brightest were not necessarily in the forefront. Arianna Paz’s Susanna engaged with charm and brimmed with versatility; she seemed entirely at home with the vocal demands. In particular, the Act IV aria Deh vieni non tardar souned exquisite; it was but one of the moments when audience was taken out of time and allowed to simply relish the rapturous beauty of the music and text. Her stage presence shone brightly of all Friday night, a distinction she shared with Matthew Vegari, who portrayed both Bartolo and the gardener Antonio, and whose comedic timing best fit the action and the musical cues.

As far as sheer vocal beauty, knowledge of the score, and Italian facility, though, the stars of the show were Christina Bianco’s Countess and Maddie Studt’s pants role of Cherubino. These two fine young singers exhibited the most mature voices and a comfort with the intense demands of the score that the other singers could not match. Whether it was an acting choice or the restrictions of her 18th-century hoop skirt, Bianco’s Countess was somewhat limited in her acting range (if it was the costume it was a shame as she possessed both power and charm but was unable to fully display the latter). Studt’s Cherubino was in full command of her music and text, flying through recitatives in comprehensible Italian while still emoting her character, and amply bringing us along the emotional rollercoaster that is adolescent love.

Figaro (Hunter York) plans to upend the Count’s schemes to disrupt his wedding. (Photography by Jordan Hayashi)

Hunter York’s Figaro projected a fine if not a little light tone (it is unclear if having a tenor sing Figaro was a decision of volition or necessity), and while he and Paz shared some palpable chemistry on stage, most of the charm and wit was on her end. James Lesu’i sang the Count with a rich baritone and believable emotions, and even some spot-on moments of comedy. Rounding out the cast were Rachel Slusky as Marcellina, Samuel Rosner as Don Basilio, and Andy Troska as Don Curzio, who carried their parts well and added much to the comedy of their scenes, and Madeleine Snow as Barbarina, whose sweet singing of L’ho perduta was a fine opening to the final act.

Le Nozze di Figaro plays at the Agassiz Theater, 10 Garden St. Cambridge through Sunday, Feb 5. For more information or tickets click here.

Patrick Valentino, a graduate of New England Conservatory, is a Boston based conductor, composer, performer and author. More information can be found at his website.

2 Comments [leave a civil comment (others will be removed) and please disclose relevant affiliations]

  1. This was truly a delightful production. It is incredible that the music director, stage director, the orchestra, and the singers are all students. The talent, artistry and preparation on display by these young performers were awesome. Of the number of times I have attended this wonderful opera both locally and at the MET, this was, overall, one of the most joyful and moving experiences. Bravo! (And thanks to the Intelligencer for getting the word out.)

    Comment by E. V. Foote — February 5, 2017 at 10:08 am

  2. This is a very fair review that accurately captures the outstanding quality of the production. However, indeed, the orchestra’s sound was just too strong, which had the unfortunate effect of reducing the first 10 minutes to virtual pantomime. The music was excellently performed, doing full justice to Mozart’s genius. The reviewer’s praise of the principal vocalists is perceptive and true. I would add that James Lesu’i, in addition to a rich baritone as noted, brought a subtle, ingratiating dignity to his interpretation of the Count, and Samuel Rosner, where the score permitted, displayed considerable vocal ability in a minor role.

    Comment by Douglas Myers — February 5, 2017 at 12:07 pm

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