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Monday, August 01, 2016

Getting Married Today

From the Vault Dept.: Summer is when the Capital Region grows opera-rich, but that’s comparatively speaking. Twenty-six years ago it was far richer, enough so that I could catch two Marriages of Figaro in the space of two months. Here are the reviews I wrote when the NY City Opera (now struggling back from the dead) and the Lake George Opera (now Opera Saratoga) both took a shot at it.


WATCHING THE NEW YORK CITY OPERA’S production of “The Marriage of Figaro,” you know you're in the presence of a classic.

The second of the short season's two offerings, “Figaro” was sung Thursday night in the amphitheater at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center by (as you’d expect from City Opera) a young, very talented cast. Where it worked, it worked splendidly.

Revolution was in the air when Beaumarchais wrote “The Marriage of Figaro,” his immensely successful sequel to “The Barber of Seville.” The Americans had been fought a successful war against the English, and the French soon would overthrow and execute their monarch.

Despite many skirmishes with censors and king, “Figaro” was a sensation when it hit the stage of the Comedie Francaise in 1784. Two years later it was set to music by Mozart, in which version it endures.

Although Beaumarchais was himself operatically-minded (he went on to collaborate with Salieri), he was a master at weaving the most un-dramatic device of satire into a dramatically successful form.

Mozart’s genius lay both in his skill at rendering characters in music and in preserving the theatricality of the piece. Although music alone could carry it through something as stripped-down as a “staged reading” version, there’s so much good stuff for an actor to do that it begs to be fully produced.

This production was good looking and nicely placed (Carl Toms was responsible for both costumes and sets), and Scott Bergeson was the skilled conductor.

Missing was that extra spark from a cast that obviously was capable of delivering it, although I have nothing but praise to lavish on Maureen O’Flynn as Susanna. She has a gorgeous voice and is utterly convincing as the strong-willed bride-to-be of the title.

Between Figaro (Dean Peterson) and Count Almaviva (William Stone) there has to exist a well-matched rivalry. Class difference is paramount, but the two seemed cut of the same baritone cloth. Both are excellent singers with an extra dash of comic presence, but neither was given much character to work with.

Whether or not it was the fault of director Christian Smith, he has to take responsibility for it. Better contrast was achieved between Susanna and the Countess (Madelyn Monti), but Cynthia Rose’s Cherubino didn’t have the hobbledehoy swagger that the part demands.

Character singers had a better time of it: they have to make their parts work in brief appearances, and the music tends to be quirky to match. Josepha Gayer was a memorable Marcellina, jilted fiancee of Figaro, and John Calvin West was a Ben Franklin-like Bartolo.

As usual, we had supertitles to wrangle with as City Opera continues its policy of ignoring the theatrical demands of immediate audience interaction. And, as is usual in the giant amphitheater, the amplification sent all sound through the giant horns of the speakers overhead, giving the stage the look and feel of a giant TV set. No wonder the audience felt detached enough to continue talking throughout.

If the spirit of Beaumarchais wasn’t satisfied, people of Saratoga should be reminded of their debt to the playwright: it was he who supplied American agent Silas Deane with the ammunition and equipment that led to the 1777 military victory at Saratoga.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 23 June 1990


LET’S FACE IT, Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” is all about sex, and the more that aspect is celebrated, the better the production will be.

The Lake George Opera Festival premiered its fifth offering of the season last night at the Adirondack Community College. Directed by Richard McKee, himself a bass-baritone who’s sung his way around the best of opera’s comic roles, the production has a bumptious music-hall feel in its randiness, even as the youthful cast makes the most of the marvelous score.

Figaro and his bride-to-be, Susanna, are a pair of clever servants who suddenly have to fear that their master, Count Almaviva, is going to demand a wedding-night favor that he abolished after his own marriage.

Charles Damsel’s Figaro has a childlike face that just can’t help but react to all the intrigue he sees around him. Alternately wily and pop-eyed, he is adroitly funny and sings with an accomplished sense both of music and words.

He’s almost overshadowed by the Susanna of Victoria Castle, played and sung with a vigor that is refreshingly ... well, un-ladylike when necessary. As Figaro boasts of her purity she rolls her large eyes up with a charming disdain of the very notion.

Character is everything in this production – it’s true for the entire season, limited by lack of funds from building lavish sets and properly placing the conductor and orchestra. An excellent sense of distance is defined between the classes, with the bastardly Count ramrod stiff and smugly unyielding. Brian Davis has the snotty look of a rich kid you wish wouldn’t sit beside you because all he does is boast.

The Countess is a tough role, requiring dignity along with a certain vulnerability as well, and Brenda Harris – in an impressive contrast to her flightier “Manon” this season – combines them nicely. Although she makes her second-act entrance with a difficult aria that didn’t begin with complete vocal conviction, her lengthy third-act solo was extremely touching and technically superb.

Cherubino, sung by mezzo-soprano Gale Fuller, has more hormonal activity in the course of a day than most of us enjoy in a lifetime, and Fuller’s husky voice has a fast vibrato that added a nifty sense of tension – after all, the page is forever getting caught with one wife or another.

Some of the other talented cast members are Frances Pallozzi as the snooty Marcellina, Paul Berkolds as Bartolo and Gregory Gunder doing double-duty as the two Dons, Basilio and Curzio.

Those of that strange class of opera purist who prefer a stand-there-and-sing approach will be dismayed at the terrific theatricality of this production. The rest of us can delight in the laughter, long built into the score, that is here revealed. It’s funny without relying on imposed business, and, of course, there’s all that Mozart music to enjoy.

If you’ve ever been tempted to see your first opera, try this one. It’s sung in English, and my wife marveled that this was one of the first she’s seen in that language in which she understood every word.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 21 July 1990

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