in: Reviews

July 19, 2010

Regional Opera Provides Glow and Sour Notes in Figaro

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What can happen in opera when all goes well but the orchestra? Believe it or not, much can and did at the Boston Opera Collaborative’s The Marriage of Figaro, currently at Mass Art’s Tower Auditorium. (This reviewer saw the performance on Sunday, July 18.) Mozart’s four acts of shenanigans taking some three-plus hours came fast-paced all the way and with integrity, save for the musicians in the pit. The singing, especially from Taesung Kim as the Count, Graham Wright as Figaro, and Margaret Felice as Figaro’s mother, kept the opera firmly on its feet.

A very boyish-looking Hilary Anne Walker brought Cherubino to life. The unwavering harpsichord accompaniment of Julia Carey richly and expressively textured the recitatives. The more you heard and saw Kim, the more convincing and appealing he became. His voice subtly allures. Wright, on the other hand, started strong, then, perhaps due to his highly relaxed, almost informal presence, turned into more of a friendly neighbor than a Figaro — but his voice always entertained.

Susanna played by Vanessa Julia Isiguen never caught fire. But Marcellina, who is discovered to be Figaro’s own mother, came off as cheerful, even giddy at times, this, because of Margaret Felice’s light and lovely voice. Erin M. Smith, the Countess Almaviva, was inconsistent, her vocal details particularly needing more attention. One of the best things that happened was in the duets and ensemble singing, where just about everyone seemed to sound better, working so naturally with one another.

The medium-sized Tower Auditorium at MassArts, really a lecture hall (so with less reverberation than found in some of the dedicated spaces around town), did not significantly hamper voices but probably did expose more of the wrong-doing by virtually every instrumentalist. One wonders if the fairly small stage played more of a role in limiting action and sets, or if it was the economy of the State, or better still, and which is more probable, the financial resources of the opera company itself.

Fine slender columns found new configurations; later a bed became a desk, and in the final act, garlands of small lights were looped about, heightening the very pleasing satiny-gold aura and giving the entire production a subdued royal elegance. Dancing during the wedding scene and a few other such smaller moves suggested there be more. A touching moment came when the Count simply kneeled before the Countess to ask her forgiveness. If there could have been more movement, play of lighting, and set cleverness, this three-hour opera could have had more impact. For the eye, the production finally became static.

All in all, almost all went well when one also considers the unbeatable price of a ticket at $25, with students coming in at $15. An ongoing issue with expensive events, accessibility cannot be blamed for keeping anyone away from opera. Had the Red Sox been away, free parking would have been easy for most to find. To boot, good refreshments could be had at good prices.

Performed in Italian with English supertitles, The Marriage of Figaro under the stage direction of Michael Ouellette may not be a must-see, but why not check it out, if you can. Adam Boyles, music director, must be asked about the orchestra: did he field these players? With another weekend of performances scheduled, can something be done, even in so short a time? Another cast will take over, so why not another orchestra?

Really, even the least experienced know when it gets this bad. Why not forgo the commitment to early instruments and get some modern ones in that can hold tune and play up tempo? Besides, I understand that only a few string players actually played on old instruments; most all merely held their modern bows higher up while using a two-plus-two formula: two gut strings (early-instrument idea) and two metal strings (modern). I also learned that a fortepiano could not be acquired, thus the harpsichord—which turned out be one of the best things all afternoon on July 18.

In its fourth season, Boston Opera Collaborative’s all-volunteer cast and crew are fresh to most Bostonians, including myself. This, in itself, might be compelling reason for taking a chance on them. Remaining performances take place Friday through Sunday July 23-25.

David Patterson, Professor of Music and former Chairman of the Performing Arts Department at UMass Boston,  was recipient of a Fulbright Scholar Award and the Chancellor’s Distinction in  Teaching Award. He studied with Nadia Boulanger and Olivier  Messiaen in Paris and holds a PhD from Harvard University. www.notescape.net

4 Comments

  1. oh please – so if you didn’t pay what a professional company has to charge to stay afloat, then why would you expect professional results from the orchestra pit? a cheapskate AND a whiner!

    Comment by Brian Clague — July 21, 2010 at 2:34 am

  2. BMInt writer, David Patterson, is fulfilling his role as a critic in exemplary form- he’s reporting what he heard. He was far kinder on the subject of the BOC orchestra than I would have been had I written the review. Presenters and potential audiences both need to hear from effective critics. Presenters can then decide (if they respect the critic) whether they want to re-think their productions and potential ticket buyers can decide how they want to spend their funds on subsequent performances.

    For the record, BOC has been pleased enough with our reviews to post several excerpts on their website. I very much enjoyed their Carmen last summer, and the $25 price included a lively young orchestra playing normal instruments in tune.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 21, 2010 at 8:36 am

  3. I would firstly like to start off by saying that, while a Fortepiano is now considered to be more standard for period performance of Mozart’s work, it is not actually the only keyboard Mozart used. Many times, when he traveled to different courts for performances, he would use a harpsichord to perform the very same pieces he wrote for Fortepiano. Thus, switching in a harpsichord is absolutely acceptable and very much true to performance practice. I wish this would have been something that the director had mentioned during the lecture.

    The following phrase the author used is also misleading: “Besides, I understand that only a few string players actually played on old instruments.” Many of the instruments were actually quite old, but had been converted to modern standards (for example, performers that use genuine Amati violins today aren’t actually playing on 100% original models, simply because the necks have been changed to “modern” standards in order to make the instrument louder and brighter). Yes, not many Period instruments were used, but what the orchestra could muster was more than acceptable. As for choking up on the modern bow, it actually gives a fairly accurate imitation of a Baroque bow, thus there should be no complaints for that, unless all one is paying attention to is looks.

    Also, playing “up tempo” has nothing to do with the instrument being used. Period instruments are just as easy to play at a quick pace (if not sometimes a bit easier, because of the tension of the Baroque bow and the angles of Baroque bridges differing from modern standards).

    When considering tuning, take into account that the group and the singers were all performing at 430 instead of the standard of 440 (430 sounds at about a little more than a quarter tone flat than what we hear as 440). This of course could throw off what the listeners in the audience expect, and of course is an extremely large adjustment for ANY orchestral performer not used to playing at any other concert pitch. Thus, while there were some issues, they did an acceptable job and I commend them for being able to get it together as well as they did. From what I could hear, they were also trying to use “Just Intonation” which means that thirds in chords would be played lower than they normally would, as would leading tones. The lack of vibrato used in the string sections, which is common performance practice, would also make any discord or harmony stick out more than most listeners are used to.

    I’m surprised that none of this was mentioned in the review–and I am sad that the author, who apparently studied music, even with the likes of Messiaen, failed to maybe notice this?

    Either way, it was a lovely production. Certainly it had some bumps and blips that needed to be worked out, but it was charming and entertaining none the less.

    Comment by Rose Jarrod — July 28, 2010 at 11:36 pm

  4. During his pre-performance talk the conductor, Adam Boyles, apologized for the use of the harpsichord instead of the fortepiano. Far from objecting to the use of the harpsichord, the BMInt reviewer anointed harpsichordist, Julia Carey, as the instrumental star of the production.

    The orchestra’s intonation was far too vague to allow speculation on matters on what tuning system they were attempting. In my understanding string players never use equal temperament unless they are in an ensemble with a piano. So Rose Jarrod’s point on “just intonation” was lost on me.

    Being able to play “up tempo” is not about early music instruments vs. modern- it’s about security on whatever instrument is employed.

    I would add more about the un-suitability of the Tower Auditorium for un-amplified music. In addition to its lack of support for the musicians, it emitted a constant drone from the air conditioning machinery which nearly obliterated any utterance below mezzo forte. It was turned off at my request after the interval.

    The show had its charms, but disappointments as well. BMInt wishes BOC well and has reviewed them with enthusiasm in the past, but Boston has higher standards for early music orchestral performance than BOC’s pit band was able to muster on the day I attended.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman — July 29, 2010 at 12:13 am

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