02 June 2012

Fort Worth Opera Festival 2012: Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’

Figaro stars Jonathan Beyer (Count Almaviva), Andrea Carroll (Susanna), Wallis Giunta (Cherubino), and Jan Cornelius (Countess Almaviva).
Illustration in progress by WVM©

The Fort Worth Opera Festival really does try to program a little something for everyone. This means that, along the attention-getting, sometimes artistically (or even politically) challenging contemporary works, the company also produces the standard repertory — generally with stagings that are traditional but smart. Consider the toy-theatre Turandot that Daniel Pelzig directed, or the psychologically taut Lucia di Lammermoor that David Gately directed, both in 2008 — which is to say, the same festival that saw Floyd’s Of Mice and Men and Eötvös’ Angels in America.

The aim, clearly, is to challenge the maximum number of operagoers while losing the minimum. What strikes me is that Fort Worth’s productions of standard repertory tend to respect the music and to allow for the possibility that the audience has never seen a given work before. We get a chance to evaluate a score on its own terms, without editorializing or pandering or wholesale revision. Hardcore buffs sometimes sniff at such productions as “safe,” and yet arguably an opera can be safe only in so far as the original work itself was safe when the composer created it.

These thoughts occurred as I watched this season’s standard-rep productions, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro and Puccini’s Tosca (about which I’ll have more to say in an upcoming report), which managed to generate a considerable excitement in the audience — even in this jaded old grey-eared scribbler — mostly through smart, well-rehearsed musical interpretations but also through clear, coherent dramatic action.

Bride and groom:
Figaro (Donovan Singletary) and Susanna (Andrea Carroll).
Photo by Ron T. Ennis © courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

Musical values really carried the day in Figaro, thanks to a winning young cast and the spirited conducting of Stewart Robertson. This score is rather like a freight train made of soap bubbles: it surges forward with overwhelming, possibly crushing momentum, and yet the whole thing can be upset with the slightest wrong touch. Just like life itself: that’s what makes this music such a joyous exhilaration when it’s performed properly.

Robertson expertly navigated all the swirling currents, from the shimmering reflections on the rippling surface to the cold still depths, and he elicited confident, pointed interpretations from his young cast. You could be forgiven for forgetting how tough a job this really is; Robertson made it all seem easy.

By contrast, Eric Einhorn’s staging was easy in a less flattering sense. The action was very, very broad — far too much so for my personal taste, and at times almost to the point of burlesque. And yet it presented the character relationships clearly and accurately, so that even people who didn’t know the story could follow the dizzying doings on this “folle journée.”

Yes, the audience might have gotten more out of a more nuanced, more detailed production, one that played more on class distinctions and subtler relationships.* But with one significant exception, the decision to treat Figaro as a broad comedy did no harm, and it may even have made things easier for audiences new to the piece.

That exception was Figaro himself, as portrayed by Donovan Singletary, a charismatic young artist who has everything it takes to make a superlative Figaro and yet who appears unable to let well enough alone. He overacted as if from desperation that he might not communicate properly if he didn’t spell out every single syllable in great big capital letters — and he never stopped moving. This affected his vocal production, too, frequently steering him into poor projection, uneven support, and unclear diction.

Some blame must lie with Einhorn and Robertson, and yet, since the other young artists mostly avoided potential pitfalls, I’ve got to worry about Singletary and to hope the tendencies on display Saturday aren’t habit: I’d hate to see him sabotage a career so promising.

The women were the true heroes of this Figaro. As Susanna, young Andrea Carroll offered a feisty dramatic interpretation and ravishing vocal tone, perfectly centered, easily produced, generously proportioned, a pure pleasure to listen to. How I wished that Mozart had given Susanna more to sing! Carroll is 22, I’m told, and so with a little luck, we’re witnessing the dawn of a major career.

Hardly less impressive was Jan Cornelius as the Countess, the only performer onstage who seemed aware that class is an issue in this spectacle. Cornelius embodied noble elegance, presenting a gracious façade that cracked only when the character’s emotions became too powerful to contain: in short, an ideal dramatic interpretation. She brought to her assignment mellifluous tone and the breath to send her long vocal lines spinning and soaring.

“Voi che sapete”: Yes, these women really do know.
Jan Cornelius (Countess), Andrea Carroll (Susanna),
and Wallis Giunta (Cherubino).
Photo by Ellen Appel© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

As Cherubino, Wallis Giunta did a terrific job of portraying the gangling adolescent boy — all the more remarkable a characterization, since she’s drop-dead gorgeous and a sometime fashion model. What a shame that Einhorn didn’t approach Cherubino’s cross-dressing scenes with a much lighter touch: instead, we mainly got lots of pulling the skirts up over the head, which doesn’t tell us much about the character, or his obsession with women, and isn’t even particularly funny. Giunta’s singing on this occasion wasn’t as distinctive as her acting, but overall she’s an appealing young artist and I look forward to watching her progress.

Kathryn Cowdrick’s plummy Marcellina and Corrie Donovan’s chipper Barbarina rounded out this Figaro’s exceptionally strong complement of women artists — and if, among the men in the cast, only bass Rod Nelman as Don Bartolo was up to the ladies’ level, it’s perhaps not surprising. The bar was very high indeed.

From a surprisingly tentative Act I, Jonathan Beyer seemed to grow into the Count’s role, gradually moving beyond swagger to something like nobility, beyond bluster to authentic feeling. With his smooth, pleasing baritone and his tall, naturally imposing stage presence, Beyer has much to offer, especially once he’s acquired a bit more experience and confidence.

Act I represented the height of Einhorn’s directorial shenanigans, and it’s a measure of Nelman’s skill that he managed to score all the points of Bartolo’s vengeance aria even while crawling on the floor. Thereafter, Einhorn seemed to calm down, leaving Nelman free to offer a zestily sung, bighearted interpretation. Having enjoyed his Dulcamara in Elixir of Love in 2010 and his Tosca Sacristan this weekend, I’m especially eager now to see him as Sulpice, opposite Joyce Castle’s Marquise in Fort Worth’s Daughter of the Regiment next season.

Allen Charles Klein’s generally handsome set designs pose the thorny question of why Cherubino and the Count would ever hide by the badly exposed armchair when there’s a perfectly good floor-to-ceiling curtain handy, in Act I. That’s a serious flaw, but I unreservedly admired Klein’s smart handling of the slamming doors and windows in Act II and the evocative garden in Act IV.

In all, this Figaro was an excellent introduction to the piece — for those who don’t know it already. And not a bad reintroduction, for those who know and love it, as I so dearly do.

Can this marriage be saved? Jonathan Beyer and Jan Cornelius as the Almavivas. Andrea Carroll as Susanna looks on.
Photo by Ron T. Ennis© courtesy of Fort Worth Opera.

*NOTE: It would be a mistake to underline the fact that the Countess will one day bear Cherubino’s child (as we learn in the third Beaumarchais play, La Mère coupable), because that’s not the story Mozart and Da Ponte are telling, and you’ll overwhelm Figaro if you try it. But it is nice to allow for the possibility, which some stage directors do manage to do. Einhorn didn’t make the attempt.

No comments: