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Saturday, April 25, 2015

Opera Review: An Old-Fashioned Wedding

Juilliard Opera stages Le Nozze di Figaro.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Shenanigans: The Count (Takaoki Onishi, center) confronts Susanna (Ying Fang, right)
as Cherubino (Virginie Verrez) looks on. Photo by Ken Howard © 2015 The Juilliard School.
On Friday night, Juilliard Opera opened its last production of the spring season, a Stephen Wadsworth staging of Le Nozze di Figaro with a stellar young cast and a staging approach that was refreshingly true to the opera's text. This is the third (and final) Mozart/Da Ponte opera to be mounted by Mr. Wadsworth at Juilliard on the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater. With designer Charlie Corcoran, he continues to rely on simple multi-proscenium sets, period costumes, lots of stage action, and young singing actors thoroughly steeped in performance tradition.

At the head of the cast was Ying Fang's show-stealing Susanna. Smart, sexy and pert with a fuller soprano than one often hears in this endurance test of a role, Ms. Fang is a star in the making. She  portrayed all the aspects of this marvelous character, from her close, almost sisterly relationship with the Countess to her merry lover's war with Figaro that ends in happy matrimony. From her first lines she sang with bright, silvery tone and maintained that through the four acts, melting hearts in "Deh vieni, non tardar."

Her Figaro was Thesele Kemane, a South African baritone with a warm middle register, sharp comic timing and a strong stage presence. Figaro gets both of his good arias in the first act, and once past those hurdles Mr. Kemane settled amiably into the role, following Mr. Wadsworth's door-slamming stage directions (reminiscent of the play Noises Off) with gusto. He was at his best though in the last act, as the misunderstandings in the darkened garden (lit only by footlights) played out, often to his detriment.

Mr. Wadsworth dictates that the Count Almaviva (Takaoki Onishi) is a flawed man with an overactive sex drive, not the axe-swinging ogre or abusive monster that appears so often in this role. Mr. Onishi sang the part with suave menace, and from his interactions with the Countess one sensed that their marriage might not be beyond repair. He was particularly moving in the final "Contessa perdono", taking the notes with long values and pauses that made one sense that his character genuinely sought redemption.

Virginie Verrez was an enchanting, sexually ambiguous Cherubino, whose relations with the Countess were more physical than usual, reminding viewers that Mrs. Almaviva bears the young page's child in La Mere Coupable, the rarely performed third play in the Figaro cycle. Ms. Verrez burst with gawky comic energy, but sang her two famous arias with taut control and technique to spare. As the Countess, Alexandra Razskazoff's soprano tends to spread into a vibrato in its uppermost register but she captured the pathos in "Porgi, amor" and "Dove sono." Her acting caught the humanity and humor in this troubled character.

The supporting cast featured Miles Mykkanen, mincing, sharp-tongued and very funny as the intrigue-obsessed Don Basilio. Önay Köse's grumpy Dr. Bartolo and mezzo Samantha Hankey as Marcellina were marvelous in the recognition sextet. Liv Redpath brought sunshine to the soubrette role of Barbarina and Tyler Zimmerman made the most of his comic opportunities as the drunken gardener Antonio. Finally Aaron Mor as Don Curzio mostly reacted, but proved that having the two tenor roles played by seperate singers is a smart move that results in considerable comic payoff.

Leading the student orchestra, veteran conductor Gary Thor Wedow preferred brisk tempos and an approach that kept the onstage action moving at a steady, fast pace. Some extramusical touches (the line dance at the wedding, the chorus members racing through the garden upstage) distracted, but overall this production captured the manic spirit of the opera while not sacrificing its original social commentary.
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Critical Thinking in the Cheap Seats

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.