We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Saturday, December 14, 2019


Curtain Call for Mercadante's I due Figaro at Manhattan School of Music

We entered the theater at Manhattan School of Music rain soaked, windblown, and grumpy.  Three hours later we walked out smiling from ear to ear and barely aware of the weather. Opera will do that to you! Part of our glee was the result of seeing so much talent onstage at one time; part of it was because the opera itself is so very very delightful.

Most opera lovers are aware of the Beaumarchais plays known as the Figaro trilogy. Mozart selected the second play for his beloved Le Nozze di Figaro with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, which premiered in 1786. In 1816, Rossini chose the first part for his own enduring opera buffa, Il barbiere di Siviglia, with libretto by Cesare Sterbini. The third part La mère coupable was set by Darius Milhaud in 1966. Not beloved. Not enduring.

So from what source did Felice Romani get his libretto for this effervescent work that was set by Saverio Mercadante? It was based on a French play by Richard-Martelly who had his own take on the interactions of the very same characters--Count Almaviva, his wife the Countess (formerly Rosina), the wily Figaro, and the lovelorn Cherubino. Apparently these characters were so beloved and so reminiscent of stock characters drawn from commedia dell'arte that writers just couldn't abandon them. They have delighted us ever since; marital disappointment and infidelity have not gone out of style, nor have young lovers facing obstacles!

So how did Mercadante's opera get lost until 2011 when Ricardo Muti rediscovered it? Jane Vial Jaffe's program notes indicate a number of artistic and political issues that delayed its premiere from 1826 until 1835--"its inherent social criticisms and immorality offended both the court and the church". By 1835 when censorship relaxed, opera buffa had sadly gone out of style.

Fortunately, Dona D. Vaughn, Artistic Director of the Manhattan School of Music Opera Theater, recognized the potential of the work--fortunate for the talented group of singers who appeared to be having the time of their lives and also for the audience who seemed to be enjoying themselves beyond the usual pleasure of opera going.

Credit must be shared by Ms. Vaughn, the gifted cast, the gorgeous costumes of Tracy Dorman, the clever set of Shoko Kambara, and the fine playing of the MSM Opera Orchestra under the baton of Stefano Sarzani who also provided the continuo.

The story made little sense on the page but Ms. Vaughn's direction made everything clear. The Count and Countess have a marriageable daughter named Inez who is in love with Cherubino. Figaro, far less charming than he was in the earlier iterations, is plotting to get her married off to one Don Alvaro, with whom he plans on splitting the dowry. Susanna, no longer sweet and innocent, is just as manipulative as her husband and schemes with the Countess and Inez to foil Figaro's plan.

The casting was absolutely perfect, both vocally and dramatically. Yu Ding has enviable stage presence and a robust but sweet-toned tenor. With Italianate phrasing he created the character of the Count, one which seemed rather consistent with the Count in the Mozart opera. He is often clueless and easily swayed by Figaro and Susanna who know just how to manipulate him. Nonetheless, Mr. Ding's Count seemed to be a more forgiving man, having acquired some better behavior at the conclusion of Mozart's opera.

Mezzo-soprano Xiao Xiao created a lovely dignified Countess who, in spite of a gorgeous aria expressing her disappointment in love, still wants her daughter to have the same opportunity to marry for love. Her voice is warm and affecting and served to illuminate the character.

As Inez, Jiyu Kim utilized her high soprano to excel in the high-flying coloratura passages. Her petite frame served well in her portrayal of a young innocent girl.

Mezzo-soprano Alanna Fraize was a marvel in the breeches role of Cherubino. She made ample use of facial expression and gesture to create a believable man in the throes of love, desperate to achieve his love object. There was plenty of fioritura for her to play with and we enjoyed every note.

It was difficult to believe that bass-baritone Evan Lazdowski is still an undergraduate. His performance as the conniving and greedy Figaro was spot on with effective vocalism and character creation.

Susanna was effectively portrayed by soprano Blair Cagney who has a nice full well-centered tone, superb coloratura, and a way of conveying wiliness without malice.

New to this part of the trilogy is the character of Plagio, wondrously created by Daniel Choi. Plagio is a young playwright and serves as a "meta" device. Figaro has promised to help him write a play and his play is the story of the opera. Mr. Choi made an adorable wide-eyed presence onstage, hiding here and there, observing the ongoing action, just as we were. The characters in the opera wrote his play for him!

Tenor Sehyun Lee took the role of Don Alvaro, the suitor whom Figaro was promoting. His unmasking at the end was the deus ex machina.

The story is filled with tropes of the era. Disguises, people hiding and spying on each other, false identities, and plots to deceive. Certain situations provide resonance with situations in the other two parts of the trilogy, i.e. Cherubino hiding in the closet. We still find them funny!

The music is filled with lavish melodies and also musical devices reminiscent of other bel canto operas. Mercadante utilizes Rossinian ensembles in which each character goes crazy but with his/her own vocal line; often he doesn't even wait for the end of the act.

We have been trying to select our favorite musical moments and it sure is difficult. The first act trio of Inez, the Countess, and Susana was delightful and the Countess' aria about love was moving. The duet between Susanna and Figaro in Act II utilized a Spanish rhythm that reminded us that we are in Seville.

Further evidence of location could be found in Shoko Kambara's clever set design which was like a cartoon. There were two orange trees flanking the door to the palacio. The courtyard had a pig roasting on a spit and picnic tables set up for the betrothal celebration. For the garden scene, the door was lifted and greenery lowered. For indoor scenes, closets were lowered for the characters to hide in.

Ms. Dorman's gorgeous costumes also bordered on cartoonish, in a very beautiful way. Peasants were dressed in becoming pastel dresses, the accurate length for that period. The aristocrats were resplendent and extremely fancy. Even the wigs by Bobbie Zlotnik were perfect and just a bit exaggerated for effect. K. Meira Goldberg's choreography was delightful.

We cannot stress how thrilled we were with the performances and their ensemble nature. Chorus Master Jackson McKinnon elicited impressive performances from his 13-member chorus of peasants.

We have rarely enjoyed a comedy this heartily and hope you, dear reader, will take advantage of the two additional performances. Even if you see a different cast you will definitely be pleased. We know the other cast and they are just as talented.

© meche kroop

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