Saturday, April 27, 2013

Review: 'The Marriage of Figaro'

Virginia Opera
Steven Smith conducting
April 26, Richmond CenterStage

Musical and theatrical challenges abound in “The Marriage of Figaro.” This first of three collaborations by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte is a comic romp that turns on a dime into moments of aching romantic tenderness. It contrasts and combines youthful and mature voices. It integrates singing and acting as no opera had done before, and few have since, requiring its principals to plumb depths of character and do justice to great melodies at the same time.

If you ever experience a perfect “Figaro,” remember it well, because you probably won’t encounter another.

Virginia Opera’s current production is not a perfect “Figaro,” but its satisfactions outweigh its shortcomings.

With 10 singers with solo numbers or prominent parts in ensembles, mismatches of voices and/or acting styles are perhaps inevitable. In the first of two Richmond performances concluding the production’s run, operatic tone overcame tune in several key arias. Lapses of intonation and timing also cropped up repeatedly.

On the plus side, characterizations were spot-on, at least in the broadly comic context set by stage director Lillian Groag. And when more depth was called for, as in the moment of recognition between Count and Countess Almaviva in the final scene, the production delivered.

Aaron St. Clair Nicholson, as the Count; Anne-Carolyn Bird, as the maid Susanna; and Karin Mushegain, as the page Cherubino, were the vocal standouts in this performance. Bird also excelled in the slapstick high jinks to which her character was frequently subjected. Two of the company’s emerging artists, Drew Duncan (Don Basilio) and Ashley Logan (Barbarina), also made strong impressions in their supporting roles.

As Figaro, the manservant to whom Susanna is betrothed, Matthew Burns (Bird’s spouse in real life) had most of the right moves – he was a bit static in ensembles – but showed a troubling variability in voice. Of his two big numbers in Act 1, “Non piu andrai” was energized and pointed, while “Se vuol ballare” was curiously soft-focused;” and he swung between those poles throughout the evening.

Katherine Whyte, as the Countess, poured tone and emotiveness into “Porgi amor,” but to a degree that obscured the melody of the great aria. Her other showcase, “Dove sono,” came across in a better balance of characterization and tunefulness.

Jeffrey Tucker (Doctor Bartolo), Margaret Gawrysiak (Marcellina) and Aaron Ingersoll (Antonio) sang and played their comic roles to a satisfying hilt, although the rest of the cast over-reacted to Antonio as if the gardener had an epic case of halitosis rather than giving off the fumes of drunkenness.

Choristers and supernumeraries were actively and constructively engaged in the show, adding some of its best comic touches. Their costumes (from Sarasota Opera) and Peter Dean Beck’s scenic design provided plenty of eye candy.

The orchestra, drawn from the Richmond Symphony, led by the symphony’s music director, Steven Smith, in his local operatic debut, was a strikingly animated and lyrical asset. I’ve rarely heard Mozart’s score played with more sparkle and refinement.

Virginia Opera's final performance of “The Marriage of Figaro” begins at 2:30 p.m. April 28 at the Carpenter Theatre of Richmond CenterStage, Sixth and Grace streets. Tickets: $31-$119. Details: (800) 514-3849 (ETIX);