Saturday, February 28, 2009

Opera review: Palm Beach 'Figaro' entertains, honors Mozart

Russian soprano Lyubov Petrova.

By Greg Stepanich

WEST PALM BEACH -- There has been a good deal of debate about the ultimate strategy of the creators of the great humanist document that is Le Nozze di Figaro: Were da Ponte and Mozart trying to say pointed things about the aristocracy, explore the vagaries of love with a pre-feminist twist, or simply try to show their audiences a good time with a screwball comedy, 1786-style?

That there is such ample food for discussion reaffirms the richness of Mozart's opera for cultural criticism, but to make the best musical impact, Figaro needs singers who can make a strong solo impression and also blend well in the big ensembles that are the structural focal point of the work. Happily, the Palm Beach Opera has such singers in the first cast of its production of Figaro, which opened Friday night at the Kravis Center.

Also happily, it is a production that stays well clear of overdoing stage business, so that the opera comes across as funny, warm and witty, but not slapstick. Marry that to an exceptional sensitivity on the part of the cast and the conductor to purely musical values and you have a reading that is straightforward and conservative, but nevertheless delights and does honor to Mozart.

The American bass-baritone Daniel Mobbs was everything a good Figaro should be. He has a strong, untiring, attractive voice, and he is a fine actor, skills that turned each of his appearances on stage into a sparkling occasion. The bass colorings of his instrument added weight and power to the ensembles and to Se vuol ballare and Non piu andrai; in the latter aria, his first-rate diction made it crackle.

As Susanna, Lyubov Petrova demonstrated a lovely, lightly colored voice that did everything it was asked to do with no sign of strain, and that had plenty of strength in reserve by the time she got to Deh vieni, non tardar in Act IV, which she tossed off, high-floating notes and all, with ease. The Russian soprano also makes a terrific comic actress, making a thoroughly believable object of real love and of unwanted lust, fighting the urge to choke the Count from behind as well as keeping his roaming right hand from attaining too secure a hold on her left breast (this is a fairly saucy production, come to think of it).

The warmest audience approval Friday night was given to Pamela Armstrong as Countess Almaviva, and she has a full, round voice that came off with an impressive dignity in her two big arias, Porgi, amor, and Dove sono. But her upper registers sounded like they were giving her trouble in Porgi, amor, and in some of the ensemble work that followed.

Her voice had warmed up noticeably by the time of Dove sono, however, which came after a beautiful piece of directing in which Armstrong walked slowly across the stage shrouded in darkness, not showing her face, until she turned upstage and into David Gano's moody bluish light. She was able to take her high A with majesty, and the whole performance of this gorgeous aria had a moving sense of tenderness and melancholy as -- in another piece of good direction -- she slowly closed the open lid of a piano.

Gezim Myshketa, an Albanian bass-baritone making his American debut in this production, made a fine Count Almaviva. He has a dark, nimble, lightweight voice that he deploys well, and with excellent musicianship. But his interpretation could have used more energy and malevolence; he was more a put-upon CEO than force of nature. His Hai gia vinta la causa, for example, was well-sung and tastefully presented, but it needed more outrage and fury; the forward motion of the plot after this point turns on the movement generated in this aria.

As Cherubino, Patricia Risley was especially good, investing this trouser role with adolescent abandon and real sexual heat, and you felt her absence in the later moments of the opera. She sings beautifully, too, with a darkly nasal quality that makes her voice stand out; her Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio, and, Voi, che sapete, were sharply and memorably executed.

Jennifer Lane was effective as Marcellina, blending well with Petrova in the Via resti servita duet, and making a good stage partner for Peter Strummer's Bartolo. Strummer did a wonderful job as Bartolo, singing a very fine La vendetta, and then proving deliciously funny in his double-duty role as Antonio the drunken gardener. Rolando Sanz made a first-rate Basilio, with a fine, athletic tenor that stood out and contrasted markedly with his gay-Pilgrim getup (that hair! Those red-buckled shoes!).

Carelle Flores, singularly fortunate in her minor role as Barbarina to have a throwaway cavatina as breathtaking as L'ho perduto, did a good job with it; she has a large voice, and it will be interesting to see how she develops.

The character ensembles in this opera, so crucial to the action, were particularly well-sung, a benefit of having so many good musicians in the principal roles. These are long stretches of music, but the listener didn't notice it, a tribute not just to Mozart but to the singers.

This is a handsome Figaro, too, with pretty sets from the Opera Company of Philadelphia, intelligent lighting choices by Gano, and very fine costumes by Allen Charles Klein. The fandango in the third act was elegantly choregraphed by Fernando Moraga, and best of all is the smart stage direction from Mario Corradi.

As noted, he does tasteful, sensitive things with the Countess' Dove sono, but he also keeps a firm hand on the stage business, making sure it amplifies rather than overwhelms the story. Characters in love or pursuit interact bodily as real people would, and this lends a feeling of authenticity to the opera that helps us forget its remoteness in time and situation.

The orchestra under Bruno Aprea was wonderful, from the swift-footed dazzle of the overture to the extraordinary breadth of dynamic range Aprea called on them to observe. As always, Aprea brings to his task a feeling of total involvement with, and advocacy of, the score. Every bar seems carefully thought out for its emotional impact, leading to moments such as the hushed mystery of L'ho perduto, the gossamer lightness of the fandango, and the muscle of Non piu andrai.

This Figaro closes with the cast turning to salute the man in the moon: the face of Mozart, the transcendent genius who made all the festivity possible. It is a suitable way to end a production that goes a good way to demonstrating in an entertaining fashion why it is that we revere him.

The Palm Beach Opera production of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) repeats today at 7:30 p.m., with Maurizio Lo Piccolo as Figaro, Layla Claire as Susanna, Timothy Kuhn as the Count, and Sola Braga as the Countess. The first cast can be seen again at 2 p.m. Sunday, and the second cast at 2 p.m. Monday. Performances take place at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. Bruno Aprea conducts. Tickets: $23-$165. Call 833-7888 (PB Opera) or 832-7469 (Kravis), or visit www.pbopera.org or www.kravis.org.

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