Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Opera Theatre of Saint Louis: Teamwork at an exalted comic level in 'The Marriage of Figaro'

My earliest  memory of opera is seeing a bit of "The Marriage of Figaro" on a neighbor's black-and-
Aubrey Allicock projected cleverness and determination as Figaro.
white TV as a grade-schooler. It was broadcast on a Philadelphia station in an era when mass communications didn't shy away from art. I saw the moment when Susanna, Figaro's fiancee, summons the page Cherubino to submit to being outfitted in her own clothes in order to help thwart Count Almaviva's amorous designs upon her.

"Come, kneel down before me," Susanna sings, proceeding to relay instructions that will allow her to recostume the smitten teenager. My impression has remained with me over some 65 years as a useful revelation: Opera can convey ordinary actions — the details of getting someone else dressed — as magically as high-flown matters, I realized. I didn't learn until much later that Cherubino's disguise was an essential building block in a fantastic comic edifice. And I only gradually became acquainted with the many splendors of opera in full.

The Opera Theatre of Saint Louis production of Mozart's sublime comedy, which I saw June 16, finesses the vast bridging of implausible machinations and misunderstandings on the one hand and, on the other, the everyday emotions around love common to most of us and our sense of what we deserve and whatever else we presume to appropriate, whether we are deserving or not.

Directed by Mark Lamos with a fluidity and verve worthy of Lorenzo Da Ponte's effervescent libretto and Mozart's insightful, resourceful score, the production grasps unreservedly the opera's realism and fantasy alike. Religion is at a far remove, and there's nary a touch of the supernatural as the ceremony named in the title takes a serpentine path toward realization.

Letter duet: Susannah Biller (Countess) and Monica Dewey (Susanna)
Everything moves so fast that it's hard to check lines you've just heard (in Andrew Porter's witty, eminently singable translation) against one of OTSL's supertitle screens. You look up, and the line is gone.

Conductor Christopher Allen deserves credit for representing the tempos well while keeping the pace from being headlong. At first the orchestra seemed a little too loud for the singers. In Cherubino's introductory arietta, in which he restlessly declares how adolescent pangs have overcome him, the murmuring orchestra found a suitable dynamic level. From then on, I had no problem with its prominence; it could be I simply adjusted the balance in my mind's ear as I was swept away by the action and the music.

More to the point is that there was no rushing through the several moments where a reflective mood must prevail. Notably among them were the two times when the Countess sings of her loneliness as her husband seems (on good  evidence) to have lost interest in her; they are the arias known in the original as "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono." In Susannah Biller, the orchestra, in which Allen also played harpsichord, had an excellent soprano to support, both dignified and passionate in her characterization. A tempo contrast even more vital, given its rare solemnity, is the disgraced Count's plea for pardon in the last act and its confirmation by choral ensemble. The passage is worthy of Mozart's sacred music; it was given larger-than-life poignancy Sunday night.

The overture, known in a concert setting better than any other of Mozart's opera overtures, unfolded briskly, with Lamos withholding his directorial hand for a while, as the audience listened and feasted its eyes on the Fragonard-inspired, lightly erotic panels that were soon to be turned around for the first scene of the well-furnished room the newlyweds hope soon to occupy. Once the major and minor players were introduced en masse  as the overture swirled to its conclusion, they cavorted among the huge panels like lascivious sheep on a hillside, hooking up briefly but suggestively. The mood in which trivial liaisons can be taken for more serious ones was thus aptly established before a note was sung. In just a few minutes, we became mentally prepared for all sorts of unpredictable shenanigans. The disorientation served even those of us who already knew the story.

The different interpretations of their prospects by the central romantic couple, Figaro and Susanna, were nicely counterpointed in the opening scene. Immediately the vocal and acting skills of Aubrey Allicock and Monica Dewey burst into realization. Their fitness never wavered. They were equal in  every expression to the travails their young love must endure as the randy Count threatens to make a budding bride his own for one night, reviving the ancient "droit de seigneur." His roving eye proves to be a constant irritation to anyone connected with his estate, unless they can find ways to turn it to their advantage. Circumstances tend to work in the nuptial couple's favor and to the disadvantage of the rapacious Count.

Theo Hoffman dashingly played the Count whose nefarious designs are constantly obstructed or rerouted. Vocally he was distinguished at every turn. Biller was his equal, making the Countess a credible opponent and eventually an exemplar of fidelity. The secondary senior couple, whose closeness remains a secret till near the end, was just as well matched: Nathan Stark as Doctor Bartolo and MaryAnn McCormick as Marcellina, his housekeeper (and so much more). Both characters abandon their carefully nurtured but futile plans of blocking the marriage of Figaro and Susanna. In this production they are presented as more than figures of fun. Marcellina, especially, went way beyond the fretful harridan of some performances in McCormick's sturdy representation.
Also well suited to giving three-dimensionality to roles that can easily be trivialized were Samantha Gossard as the twitchily ardent Cherubino, whose needs are a kind of intense cartoon version of the Duke's, and John McVeigh as the music teacher Don Basilio, a connoisseur of gossip whose florid gestures were reminders of the blithe world evoked by the French painters who inspired Paul Steinberg's set design. Crucial contributions to the plot come from Antonio, the estate's gardener, and his daughter, Barbarina — roles discharged with picturesque vitality by Phillip Lopez and Elena Villal√≥n.

The entire cast, from the principals and their support down through nameless peasants and villagers, worked together superbly. The large handful of characters given distinction by Mozart's music and Da Ponte's words retained their individuality in ensembles. There was no generic plant-your-feet-and-sing staging, except where it was appropriate in the final chorus. That's when a collective celebration of love and conflict resolution unravels every plot twist and sets the comedy down on a firm moral basis at last.

OTSL has two more performances of "The Marriage of Figaro," on June 19 and 29, in the Loretto-Hilton Center at Webster University, Webster Groves.

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