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Opera del West: Felicitous Figaro, Constrained


Da Ponte while Columbia Professor
Da Ponte while Columbia Professor

When did we decide Mozart was easy?  Do his scores constitute training material for young singers to traverse on the long road to “Vissi d’arte” or “Liebestod.” What is sometimes forgotten is that Mozart in his own day was pushing boundaries, musical and dramatic, enough to challenge his most progressive contemporaries, that performing his music superlatively requires a particular instrument and disposition, and that many of the challenges to singing and producing his operas remain as daunting as in the 18th century.

I was reminded of many of these assumptions, and their potential pitfalls, while attending Opera del West’s production of The Marriage of Figaro on Friday night at The Center for the Arts in Natick, TCAN. In its four-act  that run 3-4 hours depending on cuts, Figaro features intersecting plot lines, rapid-fire one-liners, and often oblique references to its source material; the second in Beaumarchais’s 18th-century trilogy, Figaro observes class tension and social mores through a vivid lens. To mount this extended drawing-room comedy as a coherent piece of musical theater is no mean feat—that librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte could make the play singable is proof enough of his theatrical brilliance—but to bring humanity to broadly drawn characters in patently farcical situations is a challenge of even greater magnitude.

Stage Director Brenda Huggins chose to address the obstacles by focusing on the details of Da Ponte’s libretto, illustrating individual lines and moments with an abundance of stage business, but lacking overriding focus, an approach resulting in a performance that ultimately felt over 3.5 hours like something less than the sum of its parts. (Also, as well-known as Figaro’s plot may be within the opera world, it was surprising there was no synopsis in the program, if only to keep novices straight as to the difference between Marcellina and Barbarina or to which Don is which.) That the production team decided to present the opera in its original Italian is laudable, and it was clear from the singers’ deliveries that they had all studied line-by-line translations carefully and were aware of the meaning of their individual phrases, contributing a comic punch to the delivery of some of Da Ponte’s innuendo-laden wording. Although the text was delivered with specificity from moment to moment, the characters never showed much in the way of an emotional through-line, and two hours into the action the broad gestures and mugging had grown tedious. Most of the company members seemed invested more in executing individual moments of pantomime than in connecting with one another, so the tenderer passages in Mozart’s score were lost in an onslaught of shtick. Indeed, the more somber moments in the score (notably “Porgi amor”) suffered from a lack of musical and dramatic inspiration.

All this said, it is a tall order for opera singers to make their way through an evening of slapstick and maintain vocal control, and Friday night’s cast moved gracefully and for the most part effortlessly through their excessively active blocking. And a few moments of broad slapstick were very effective: in Act I, for example, the Count moved to catch the collapsing Susanna in his arms and took the opportunity to begin groping her chest. His quick-witted prey, though apparently unconscious, was not yet too far gone to reflexively slap his hand away, shocking the Count and delighting the audience. However, it was more rewarding when the audience was privy to a rare moment of non-presentational naturalism. For example, in the bit part of the judge Don Curzio, tenor Morgan Chalue seemed as organically confused by the bizarre circumstances of Figaro’s parentage as he could be, acting as an audience surrogate and providing a refreshing moment of realism in his one scene.

The production featured no orchestra and the score was performed in voice/piano reduction, with Music Director Eve Budnick at the keyboard. Although Budnick played with spirit and style throughout, few pianists are capable of invoking all the nuances of orchestra through keyboard alone, and the absence of other instruments was keenly felt at moments. One couldn’t help but feel let down, for instance, when that iconic overture began without the vigorous sounding of horns and timpani or the vibrant interplay between woodwinds and full complement of strings. The same principle applied to the final ensemble in Act IV, during which all misunderstandings are cleared up and all errant husbands forgiven—the lack of connection among actors and the absence of orchestral texture made what is otherwise a moment of catharsis through an exquisite marriage of voices and instruments fall flat.

While the absence of an orchestra should have eased the cast’s burden of projecting over instruments, this was not always the case. Nearly every principal singer was drowned out at some point during the evening by the keyboard. Granted, I was seated very near the instrument, on the lefthand side of the house about four rows from the stage, but I cannot imagine that the combination of Budnick’s lively performance and a lack of squillo in some of the darker voices in the cast did not affect the experience of audience members seated farther from the baby grand. Gratefully, a good number of the cast members were superlatively schooled in Italian diction, which made individual lines of text more intelligible, and counteracted some of the muffling due to suboptimal acoustics.

The venue itself did the singers no favors, TCAN’s performance space being a restored firehouse. A beautiful brick construction with low ceilings and a great deal of retro charm, the venue is perfectly suited to popular music in various genres. It is not an ideal venue for opera or even mainstream musical theater, acoustically as well as logistically; the stage lacks wings and proscenium, and features offstage exits and entrances set well apart from the low 12’ x 25’ stage at the back of the auditorium, surrounded by removable chairs arranged in three sections in front. The low boxlike construction of the venue does little to help projection, while lack of wood paneling forces the musicians to sing into (less treble-reflective) brick.

Huggins’s decision to move the action to the 1950s brought no particular revelations to text or subtext; in the notes Budnick wrote that “[the] idea of setting [the action] in the 50s only served to highlight the double standard when it came to infidelity in marriage,” although for this reviewer the main advantage was to facilitate staging and costuming. That said, Nancy Ishihara’s costumes were well-suited to the time—the Countess made her first appearance in an ornate velour dressing gown, Dr. Bartolo in a double-breasted sportcoat with a garish floral ascot and matching pocketsquare, while Barbarina and the young women of the chorus flounced around in poodle skirts and tennis shoes, among other idiomatic sartorial touches. The set was simple, with a window and door at stage left for Acts I and II, and a rose-covered trellis, park bench and potted trees for the next two acts. Larry Budnick’s lighting, though limited by the venue, might have been more nuanced—it would have helped the action considerably in the final act if the lights had been dimmer, to suggest that the sun had well and truly set; in the harsh glare as projected, it took a leap of imagination to surmise that the two physically dissimilar sopranos playing the Countess and Susanna could be mistaken for each other, particularly by their respective spouses.

Soprano Sara Womble is a compelling stage presence and brought spirit and wit to the role of Susanna. Vocally, she was perhaps the best-suited to the repertoire, with a warm, clear tone, buoyancy and agility of delivery, with impressive execution of arpeggios and cadenzas. A standout among the men was baritone Brandon Martinez, who sang the role of the Count. Martinez boasts a warm, rich sound, and strutted carelessly around the stage, oozing confidence and sensuality. Possessed of devilish old Hollywood-style looks, Martinez portrayed the insatiable nobleman with all the smooth charm and offhanded sleaziness of a career gambler—imagine Nicky Arnstein as a Spanish aristocrat. In their moments together onstage, Womble and Martinez made for an irresistible duo—one imagines they’d give a dynamic reading of “La ci darem’ la mano” if ever cast opposite each other in Don Giovanni. This of course is speculative—suffice to say that although their characters were not scripted to end up together, Womble and Martinez undoubtedly constituted the performance’s power couple.

Among the other principals, mezzo Bethany Hickman gave a creditable reading of the lascivious page Cherubino. Hickman’s lovely tone, youthful yet rounded, appears to still be developing but already features an exciting array of colors and potential for expressive power. Moreover, it is a bright but also beautifully warm instrument: there are glints of sunlight in the sound. Though her vocal delivery was nuanced, I would have like to have seen her more fully inhabit the character—her Cherubino was appealingly naïve and sentimental, but very little of the boyishness of the role was present in Friday’s performance, and made it rather difficult to believe that this young man could be in the throes of testosterone-fueled teenage lust. Bethany Worrell made for a sweet, kittenish Barbarina, and Christine Field Sinacola gave an energetic, polished performance as Marcellina.

All things considered, this performance of Figaro had its merits, and must be applauded for the ambition in mounting so iconic and intricate a work under constrained circumstances. Moreover, one has to credit a production that is so obviously fueled by a director’s enthusiasm—in her note, Budnick acknowledged the scope of her task, expressing her love of the music and refusal to be swayed by the difficulties in producing this particular opera without a traditional space and budget. Opera del West proved that performing Mozart well is a much more difficult business than it appears to be; it looks (and in this case sounds) easy only if you’re already doing it extraordinarily well.

Kate Stringer ( MM in musicology from BU) is Research and Public Information Administrator at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. In addition to her scholarly activities, she is a veteran actress, writer and director as well as a versatile mezzo-soprano.

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