|Jeni Houser as Susanna
|Jesse Blumberg as Figaro
It was the social event of the season and we were thrilled to be invited. In keeping with the exclusivity of the event and the size of Count Almaviva's summer residence on Hudson St. in the West Village, it was a small private event, limited to only fifty fortunate guests.
The ceremony was delayed for about two hours and we guests were privy to all the preparations. We got to chat with Figaro himself as he studied the room allotted by the Count, trying to figure out where to place the marital bed. We got to greet his bride Susanna as she made her preparations.
The ceremony, which was delayed due to all kinds of complications, finally took place with the entire household in attendance and guests being treated to glasses of Madeira with which to toast the bridal couple, and some lovely sweetmeats, ensuring that the marriage would be a sweet one.
We are speaking, of course, of The Marriage of Figaro, not the Mozart version, but a relatively unknown version written by Marcos Portugal in 1799 with libretto by Gaetano Rossi, who, like Da Ponte, adapted the work from a play by Beaumarchais. The story was basically the same with a few minor variations.
On Site Opera has made their mark by presenting lesser known operas in site-specific settings. This work marks the centerpiece of their exploration of the Beaumarchais trilogy. Having experienced several of their excellent productions, we count their contributions as crucial to the New York City opera landscape.
The production team is no less than visionary: Executive Director/Producer Jessica Kiger sees her company as complementary to grand opera, not a replacement. Indeed, there is something unique and incredibly special about opera up close and personal.
Stage Director Eric Einhorn has exquisite taste and judgment in each and every production, moving characters around the set and giving them stage business that is meaningful.
Conductor Geoffrey McDonald not only brings out the best in his musicians and singers, but, in this case, collaborated with guitarist José Luis Iglesias to produce a version of the score involving four classical musicians (violin, cello, clarinet, and oboe) with three musicians suggestive of Portuguese fado music (classical guitar, Portuguese guitar, and accordion).
That sounds strange on paper but the music they made seemed totally appropriate and fell fantastically well on the ear. Furthermore, it helped to get the point across that we were hearing an entirely different work and not a "copy of Mozart".
This being an opera, the voices were, shall we say, "instrumental" in the success of this venture. As the eponymous Figaro, lyric baritone Jesse Blumberg soared gracefully through the material and conveyed the wily resourcefulness of his character. As his bride Susanna, soprano Jeni Houser sang warmly and winningly. Their chemistry together was wonderful, not only in their duets but in the dialogue.
(In place of recitativi, we had effective dialogue written by Joan Holden.)
As the beleaguered Countess Almaviva, soprano Camille Zamora was believable and sang with warmth and lovely tone. We particularly enjoyed her duet with Ms. Houser.
Tenor David Blalock made a marvelous Count Almaviva, both dramatically and vocally. He conveyed all of the Count's arrogance and eventual contrition.
Soprano Melissa Wimbish made a perfect Cherubino, totally convincing in her mischievous portrayal, and vocally excellent.
For humor, we had the Marcellina of mezzo-soprano Margaret Lattimore, whom we much enjoyed some years ago and were happy to see back onstage. Bass-baritone David Langan was just right as Don Bartolo.
Bass-baritone Ryan Kuster excelled as the slimy Don Basilio and bass-baritone Antoine Hodge was hilarious as the gardener Antonio and even funnier as the notary Gusmano. He kept falling asleep even as he was reading the documents and we couldn't help noticing that his character was the only person in the room who was. (So unlike sitting at the Met surrounded by snoring audience members.)
So--this production was anything but a snooze. It was incredibly involving and one left feeling as if one was a participant, not an observer.
Had the musical values been any less wonderful, we might have been telling you that the set stole the show. The performance was a multi-storied and elaborately decorated house on Hudson St. which audience members were invited to explore before the opera began. It was great fun to encounter the cast members already in character. One truly felt a part of the proceedings.
Costumes by Haley Lieberman seemed to suggest an indeterminate period in the second half of the 20th c.
The opera was sung in English and, although we would have preferred to hear it in the original Italian, we admit that the translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray was exceptionally well done, using some clever rhymes like "marriage/disparage". Contributing to our tolerance for the English was the fact that every cast member had excellent diction, a quality we do not take for granted.
We feel a bit guilty praising so highly a work which few of you will get to see. The four-day run was sold out long ago and we can only hope that it will be presented again in the future so that more people might experience the same thrill that we did.
Obviously the economics of producing such an elaborate work in such intimate quarters for such a small audience to enjoy is an issue. On Site Opera deserves your philanthropy!
© meche kroop