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Necessity and motherhood enjoy a supportive relationship that is serving the Opera Company of Philadelphia quite well. The result is, of course, invention, but not in the usual sense.
Because of budget constraints, the company trims, shapes and sometimes dodges, but the result is conservative. Not in the distorted political sense, but in the true sense of the word. The company closed its season with Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Company general manager Robert Driver commanded thrift; company artistic director Robert Driver again took on the role of stage director— there’s thrift— with the aim to preserve a dark comedy that has survived 220 years without the need of modernization. Conserving a masterpiece, that’s called.
Conservative staging is often equated with dull, plodding direction. But Driver recognized that the work succeeds because of what it is, what is in the score, what is in the text. No need to set the work in Trump Tower, as Peter Sellars did, while handing Cherubino a hockey stick and making Figaro the chauffeur. No need to make the audience use its post-feminist values to judge the Countess or Susannah. Necessity kept the message plain. The opera succeeds because of its music, because of its fundamental view of human nature in its social context.
Critics aren’t supposed to admire such things, but some works need to be preserved, sustained and simply held up to the light. The stage, bared of theatrical oddities, set the cast free to sing and play their roles. Conductor Corrado Rovaris provided unshakable underpinning for the voices, at the same time moving the orchestra gracefully into all the corners of this score. Christine Brandes and Richard Bernstein were back to sing the central roles they’d performed seven years ago; Mary Dunleavy, an Opera Company regular, sang the Countess to the Almaviva of Italian baritone Simone Alberghini, in his local debut.
Alberghini fit easily into this production. He sings with a sturdy, dark voice that commands attention for its shadings, its directness and musicality. Dunleavy possesses the vocal resource to create a despairing character, deep in sensitivities but with glints of youth. When the Count sings her name, “Rosina,” it’s a reminder of her youthful self, something the soprano conveyed subtly and well. Singing a pure pianissimo in the second act aria, she proved that clarity and nuance trump volume in any careful portrayal.
In the title role, Bernstein was all bumptious enthusiasm. His comic flair fit the music, his voice filled in the portrait of a lover in command of his wits. Christine Brandes made Susanna a joyous, perceptive creature. Her singing proved an extended lesson in expressive characterization. She and Dunleavy created an ensemble of differentiated timbres, always warm, always incisive.
Kirstin Chavez, as Cherubino, completed a core quintet easy in their roles, appealing to the ears. Kevin Glavin, Myrna Paris and John Easterlin lifted the comic secondary roles to blend and to propel the comedy along.
This production summarized what OCP is about. Conservatism is a solid base for any company hoping to build to the future.
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