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In opera parlance, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro is what some would call a “bread and butter” work. These are the titles that form the backbone of the standard repertory, and fans hold strong opinions on how they should be staged. To open its 85th season, the Academy of Vocal Arts (AVA) delivers a production designed to please traditionalists, handsomely furnished but short on fresh insight.
Adapting Beaumarchais, Mozart and his great collaborator Lorenzo da Ponte crafted a sex comedy. Opportunities for ribaldry and low humor abound. Yet this opera also offers an early dramatic depiction of class consciousness. Count and Countess Almaviva and their servants, Figaro and Susanna, mirror each other—the feelings of mistrust and betrayal embedded in their respective relationships show that connubial strife cuts across social strata.
The creators were also interested in exploring the abuses of power that the aristocracy could inflict upon commoners. After all, the plot hinges on whether the Count will exercise his feudal “right” to sleep with Susanna before she marries Figaro. Given the current climate surrounding sexual misconduct, the opera can seem downright prescient in its handling of men who feel possession and ownership over women’s bodies.
David Gately’s production doesn’t mine these complicated depths. He opts for a familiar but dull mise en scène that relies heavily on tropes of operatic acting. The choreography, such as it is, consists mostly of pratfalls and hands placed firmly on hips. The performers tend to deliver their arias directly to the audience, rather than to their stage partners. The physical trappings are stately and period-specific, but they lack much distinction; the sets (by Peter Harrison) and costumes (by Val J. Starr) look as though they could have been rented.
Under Christofer Macatsoris’s baton, the AVA Orchestra zipped through the famous overture at a pleasing clip, but otherwise employed excessive amounts of rubato. Even with some expected cuts, this made for a long evening. (The performance I attended ran nearly three-and-a-half hours.) The arias, of which there are many, were often paced with dirgelike slowness. This zapped the comedy from the more boisterous numbers and lent the plaintive music a self-indulgence that verged on lachrymosity.
Two sterling performances emerged from the principal company. As Count Almaviva, second-year baritone Timothy Murray masterfully balanced seductiveness and smarminess, and displayed a superb legato line. He is a Mozartean to the manner born, and his performance of “Hai giá vinta la causa” was the evening’s highlight.
Chelsea Laggan turned the secondary role of Marcellina—Figaro’s nemesis turned long-lost mother—into a comic tour de force. Her attractive and secure mezzo-soprano made you wish the production hadn’t cut the character’s fourth-act aria.
Waiting for the payoff
With his shoulder-length hair tied in a ponytail and his costume a cross between pirate and toreador, Brent Michael Smith (Figaro) looked like he stepped off the cover of a Harlequin romance. His physical presence left little to wonder why Susanna (soprano Aubry Ballarò) would find him so irresistible. Yet the role’s music sat uncomfortably in his bass voice, with many high-lying passages simply beyond his reach.
Ballarò sang her role securely, but she largely defaulted to a stock spitfire characterization. Her fourth-act “Deh vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella”—one of the most beguiling moments in all of opera—was a triumph of technique, but it largely lacked wit and radiance.
As the Countess, Kara Mulder acquitted herself well in recitatives, but her renditions of the role’s two showpiece arias were oddly tentative. Neither “Porgi amor” nor “Dove sono” properly communicated the anguish of a woman in the throes of a disintegrating marriage. Mulder acted passively throughout the performance; there was little emotional payoff to be found when she forgave the Count at the opera’s conclusion.
Pascale Spinney didn’t quite nail Cherubino’s boyish fervor, and although her singing was entirely inoffensive, she lacked much individual flavor. Bass Cody Müller (Dr. Bartolo), tenor Zachary Rioux (Don Basilio), and soprano Emily Margevich (Barbarina)—all new to the AVA roster—made strong first impressions.
Figaro may be an opera of the bread-and-butter variety, but there’s no reason the bread should be stale. In this staging, the audience is left mostly hoping for crusts.
What, When, Where
Le Nozze di Figaro. By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte. Directed by David Gately. Academy of Vocal Arts. Through November 19, 2019, at the Helen Corning Warden Theater at AVA, 1920 Spruce Street, Philadelphia. Additional performances in Haverford (November 21) and Bethlehem (November 24). (215) 735-1685 or avaopera.org.
A wheelchair-accessible entrance is located in the rear of the AVA building. Please call (215) 735-1685 in advance if you need to use this entrance.
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