|Count Almaviva (Seung-Hyeon Baek) and Susanna (Alexa Smith) duke it out
(photo by Brian E. Long)
Since last night's performance of Mozart's 1786 masterpiece Nozze di Figaro by Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble, we cannot stop singing and humming the master's melodies. Such is the Magic of Mozart! This is the centerpiece of the trilogy and the best known. There is a reason why it is. Not only are we celebrating the marriage of Susanna and Figaro, but the marriage of Mozart and Da Ponte, a match made in music heaven. Da Ponte created some wonderful and complex characters; Mozart composed music that amplifies the characterization.
We were greatly impressed by Seung-Hyeon Baek's performance as the unlikable Count Almaviva who seems to exist to make women miserable. The lovely Countess, whom he so relentlessly pursued in the first Beaumarchais play, is now lonely and neglected as her philandering husband pursues her servant Susanna with importuning and groping, to the dismay of both women.
Mr. Baek has a rich baritone that he employs effortlessly obviating any notice of his technique. He immersed himself so totally in the character that one forgot everything else. Gesture, body movement, and facial expression worked together and was always connected to the moment. This is the kind of theatrical presence that we want to see and hear all the time.
He certainly met his match in the lovely Susanna of Alexa Smith whom we have long admired since Manhattan School of Music and Prelude to Performance. Her lovely soprano was always on target and the character she created was in some ways different from other Susanna's who have blended together in a generic way. Her Susanna was rather more put-upon--not only annoyed by the Count's attentions but also occasionally irritated by Figaro's denseness. This characterization made her more real; what bride has not been a bit tense on her wedding day!
As the Countess Almaviva, we enjoyed the performance of Elizabeth Tredent who created a sad characterization of a cast-off wife in her two major arias "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono". Her scenes with Susanna and Cherubino were enchanting as the companionship seemed to lift her out of her funk. We were glad to see her blossom at the end of the opera as the machinations of Figaro resulted in a rapprochement of sorts with the Count.
Cherubino was well portrayed by Natasha Nelson whose "Non so piu" was marked by appropriate variety of tempi. Her "Voi che sapete" was similarly excellent and was marked by dynamic variety.
Figaro himself was performed by Cole Grissom who had excellent chemistry with Ms. Smith. We have rarely seen such a frisky physical performance; this feature added to the contemporaneous nature of the production. We liked his cavatina "Se vuol ballare", which marked the birth of his antagonism to his master, based on Susanna's reporting of the Count's dishonorable intentions toward her.
Jonathan Dauermann made a sturdy Dr. Bartolo, unpleasant at first but becoming rather benevolent when he learns that Figaro is his son. He handled "La vendetta" very well, especially the rapid patter part.
As his housekeeper Marcellina, Kerry Gotschall made a fine showing, especially in her catty duet with Susanna in which the two women insult one another.
Milan Rakić made a wonderfully slimy gossipy Don Basilio, the troublemaker in the court. Joy Tamazo had the sweet light soprano that makes Barbarina such a delightful character; Michael Spaziani portrayed the gardener Antonio without indulging in drunken antics.
The captivating music was played by the Metamorphosis Chamber Orchestra, conducted by John Spencer, IV. Right from the overture we knew they and we were in good hands. The performance moved right along without a single longueur. In terms of musical values, nothing more could be wanted.
Direction by Eve Summer matched the music-making in tempo. Actions were all well-motivated. A directorial choice was made to set the opera in contemporary times which created a disjunction with the dialogue referencing customs of the 18th c. This did not interfere with our enjoyment but we do feel that better decisions might have been made by Costume Designer Carly Bradt.
Everyone wore street clothes, likely a budgetary issue. We wanted the Count to dress better than his servant. We wanted Cherubino to wear Nike, not espadrilles. The "costumes" probably came out of the performers' closets but better choices might have been made. At least the Countess wore a gold necklace to distinguish her from her servant.
Meganne George's set design was simple but never distracted from the interaction of the characters. Once again, Scott Schneider's lighting design was subtly effective.
The surtitles were better than those usually seen. Karen Rich and Eve Summer are credited. They seemed to give a more complete picture of the subtleties usually glossed over and gave better insight into the characters.
The trilogy continues tonight with the contemporary Rosina by H. Titus. Same venue--the comfortable (but chilly) performance space at Baruch College.
(c) meche kroop