Figaro: Evolve or Die

Too many opera lovers go to the theater wanting the same interpretation over and over. They have forgotten that opera is theater after all, that evolved from the ancient commedia dell'arte tradition, where improvisation is the key ingredient. Take Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro, which we saw last night at the University of Oklahoma...

Yes, Figaro was a buffo, cutting capers and trying to skate smoothly around the intrigues of the women. Yes, Cherubino was adorable, Don Curzio, the judge, stuttered, and Antonio the gardener was a drunk. These are the things we expectplus a hundred other little pointsthey cannot be messed with, but director William Ferrara skirted outside the bounds in this production a little bit, and to a pleasant effect.

First of all, instead of the usual 18th-century setting, it was placed in the 1930s, with clever costumes by Kasey Allee-Foreman. Secondly, working with a cast of 11 and the budget constraints that face any college production, a number of scenes and musical numbers were cut, including the chorus scenes. Figaro can easily run close to four hours in length. To successfully cut that in half is no easy trick. The cutting of these scenes was obviously made not only with great care, but with a thorough understanding of the libretto, music, plot, and character development. Being a college production, the audience was made up of more people unfamiliar with opera than a formal production, and the cuts made the complex story with its multiple plots and subplots easier for the "uninitiated" to follow.

It is usually Cherubino and Susanna who steal the show, but last night was Figaro's night. Leslie John Flanagan, an Australian baritone who studied at Queensland Conservatorium and the Royal Scottish Academy of Music & Drama, has a winning stage presence and antics that reminded me somewhat of Roberto Benigni in Life is Beautiful, sans the annoyance factor. His gestures and athletic agility made it easy to forgive the little bit of trouble he had with timing at the opening of act one. He played a lovable Figaro, a man with whom we can sympathize.

I wish that I could say that I was delighted with Dongling Gao's Susanna, but I can't. Her wooden acting and lack of presence in acts one and two were a disappointment, and I didn't like her voice very much, I confess. She perked up after the intermission, however, and performed Deh vieni non tardar charmingly. In Gao's defense, I add that the two-piece wool suit she wore in the first three acts did nothing to help her open up. Instead of a pert, sassy ladies maid, she came off like a bratty corporate administrative assistant.

Of course, everyone loves Cherubino, the Count's hormonal 14 year-old page (a role that is always acted by a woman), and Jennifer Senkowski, with her gamine appearance and angelic face served up her part deliciously. The eyes of Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte no doubt sparkled with laughter when they decided to make Cherubino a trouser role. The gender-bending eroticism of seeing a woman in man's clothing on stage (no longer confined to the boudoir) must have raised plenty of eyebrows in the audience when this opera premiered on May 1st, 1786, not to mention the scenes of Cherubino cavorting with the women on various palace beds. Senkowski delivered her two arias with a voice that is pure and lovely, her acting was perfect, and she showed absolutely no aversion to planting a kiss on the Contessa's mouth.

Ah, the Contessa... Ashley Renée Watkins was sublime. She played the Countess with dignity and strength, a role that is too frequently portrayed as co-dependent and rather pathetic. During her second aria, Dove sono, she had the audience in the palm of her hand, something I have never before witnessed, and when she hit her A, it brought tears to my eyes. She was perfectly juxtaposed with the Count, performed by Jaime Killion, whose portrayal was more what I've imaged the count really is: a conniving, abusive, philandering noble going through mid-life crisis.

Killion demonstrated strong acting skills and the execution of his difficult melismatic passages was notable. These are students after all, and Mozart wrote this music for seasoned professionals who were under the employ of Joseph II, the Emperor of Austria. Killion's Count slaps and pushes and bullies nearly every other character, and in the finale in which he is revealed for the callous, a-social man he is, he goes down on one knee before the Countess, singing "Contessa, perdono..." through gnashing teeth. It's easy to see that he is not a man accustomed to asking either for permission or forgiveness of anyone, and the Countess stands strong and forgiving, yet understanding that her husband isn't likely to change. This scene is usually played full of repentance and salvation, but those familiar with the Beaumarchaise trilogy know full well that in the next opera (Mozart's is part two) the Countess runs away with Cherubino and has his love child. Obviously, things don't go well for this blue blood couple after curtain fall.

I was happy to see that Ferrara stuck with the roles of Basilio and Curzio being played by one actor as Mozart did. Mozart's music master/chaplain and judge were performed by Irish tenor Michael Kelly. Last night these were sung by Christopher Trapani. I wish I could have heard more of his strong, clear tenor voice.

Although the role of Dr. Bartolo was written for a bass, last night he was a tenor, which was disappointing because Bartolo's aria, La Vendetta, is one of the highlights of the entire opera for me. Still, one cannot expect a college boy to have that kind of voicea basso voice usually requires a little more age behind it. All the same, the role of Bartolo was well-acted by Derrick Brown, who assumed it as a disorganized, tweedy lawyer with a tattered valise.

His counterpart is Marcellina, the robust, catty matron who is after Figaro until the truth of his birth comes to light and everyone discovers that he is the love child of herself and Bartolo. Lisa Marut was an ebullient and comedic Marcellina with a clear soprano voice that would have been better suited for Susanna had the actress looked the part.

Kara Erbar sang the role of the 12 year-old Barbarina well enough, but as usual, the director either didn't understand the double entender behind Barbarina's aria, Lo perduta! (I have lost it!) after spending some stolen moments in the garden with Cherubino, or else he chose not to portray the scene in that fashion. Pity, because without the double meaning the aria runs the risk of appearing superfluous.

Antonio, the drunken gardener, sung by Matthew McCarter was a little underacted; I doubt that he has ever been drunk, but that's okay. He's an undergrad and he's too young to drink... Ahem.

Overall, I entirely enjoyed this performance. The orchestra was nearly flawless and it was evident that conductor Jonathan Shames loves his Mozart. The Holmberg Hall Opera House was a treat in and of itself, recently renovated, combining "...state-of-the-art technology with the ambiance of a European-style opera house."

To all who made this production what it was, from the beautiful and creative set designs to the music itself, I congratulate you. Opera must be an organic, living thing to survive our modern age and beyond. These stories must evolve with our times while retaining their original intent. The University of Oklahoma's production of Le Nozze di Figaro is something they can be proud of.