Monday, March 2, 2009

Opera review: Second-cast 'Figaro' sometimes disjointed, but singing is strong

From left: Layla Claire, Solo Braga and Patricia Risley
in Palm Beach Opera's Le Nozze di Figaro.

By Rex Hearn

The idea of setting Beaumarchais's play to music came from Mozart, librettist Lorenzo da Ponte said of Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro):

''Much as I had to 'cut' the dialogue, we must give Mozart the kudos for writing music that filled in the gaps,'' he said. ''His music is a sublime mixture of wit and melancholy, which has no equal.''

But I would not describe Palm Beach Opera's second-cast production, which I saw Saturday, as sublime. While some of the singing and acting was exceptional, the first two acts in particular came off as disjointed and even underrhearsed.

One of the difficulties was that stage director Mario Corradi kept going for cheap laughs, repeating pratfalls and drink-besotted bad-breath jokes ad nauseam. Commendably, he had good new ideas, such as seating the Countess at a spinet instead of desk in the Act III letter scene, and having her sing her first melancholy aria, Porgi, amor, about the loss of her husband's love, from her lonely bedside.

Then, too, the cutting of Cherubino's hair by Figaro at the end of Act I was genuinely funny. And the wedding scene was expertly staged, clearly showing the passing of the "secret" letter from Susanna to the Count -- sealed with the largest pin anyone has ever used.

There also were occasional problems coming from the pit. Conductor Bruno Aprea took the overture at breakneck speed, and the orchestra responded superbly, each section shining in this fast, furious reading. Yet, while Mozart is best when the interpretation is brisk and brilliant, Aprea's pacing proved to be a problem for the singers, who could not keep up.

A subtle tussle ensued: Aprea and Figaro battled for tempo control in Figaro's opening Act l aria, Cinque, dieci, venti, and the spat continued through the first two acts, which consequently were quite uneven. Thankfully, the final two acts were indeed nearly sublime, as coach and team finally resolved their differences.

Singing Figaro was Sicilian bass-baritone Maurizio Lo Piccolo. Frankly, he wasn't lively enough, more a follower than a leader. He never reached his potential, acting too casually in situations that demanded vitality. His voice is rich and sonorous, but only in the middle register.

Rushing from the stage, he moved among the orchestra seats in Act IV to sing a stunning rendition of Tutto e disposto, a diatribe about women. He was magnificent, but it was too late. From audience reaction at curtain time, he had lost their support ages ago.

Soprano Layla Claire, however, was the quintessential Susanna. Her bright soprano rang true and she was perfection in this role. Her last solo in Act IV, Deh vieni non tardar, was sung beautifully.

Count Almaviva, baritone Timothy Kuhn, was excellent. His commanding presence and good acting anchored a lot of this opera when things tended to be ragged earlier on. Kuhn's voice has fine nobility, and a sweet sound, and he is authoritative and voluminous when needed.

The Icelandic soprano Sola Braga, as the Countess Almaviva, was wonderful. Her strong, forceful voice took on the daunting tessitura that Mozart wrote for this part, and she came out a winner. Her Porgi, amor, which showed off her great vocal technique, was masterful.

Playing Cherubino, the lovestruck teenaged courtier, was mezzo Patricia Risley. Her tall stature made it easier to think of her playing a man, but Corradi had her posing in ungainly positions that not even the most awkward 18-year-old would countenance. These contortions wiped out any believability that might have seeped across the footlights.

The other mezzo written into this opera was Marcellina, ably sung by Jennifer Lane. I've seldom heard a Marcellina as good as Lane; her voice is pleasing on the ear and very supple, with a distinct timbre.

Bass-baritone Peter Strummer sang two roles: Dr. Bartolo and Antonio, the gardener. With makeup, clever acting, and great singing, Strummer made the character switches magically. (Kudos to Kathy Waszkelewicz for makeup and hair design, as well as to her helpers.)

Rolando Sanz, a Palm Beach Opera resident artist, was brilliant in his dual roles as the music master, Don Basilio and lawyer Don Curzio. Sanz, whose tenor has a lovely intonation, performed the Basilio role so well that he almost stole the show. Carelle Flores, also a resident artist, sang and acted Barbarina with keen personality and charm.

The continuo harpsichord played by Bruce Stasyna in the orchestra pit was witty, cheeky, jangling and loud, absolutely in keeping with what Mozart himself might have done. The opera chorus was marvelous, acting as scene changers in the transformation from the grand hall of Act III to the topiary garden of Act IV, and won deserved applause.

Lighting designer David Gano should have illumined the faces of the cast at the rejoicing scene that ends this opera (perhaps it was a technical hitch), while Chilean choreographer Fernando Moraga made the dances look classy, even in cluttered, cramped spaces.

Rex Hearn is the founder of the Berkshire Opera Company, the only professional summer opera company in Massachusetts, which has just completed its 24th season. He has been reviewing opera in southern Florida since 1995.

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