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Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Opera Review: A Madcap Marriage, Minus Mozart

On Site Opera mounts Marcos Portugal's Figaro.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Oh, Susanna: Jesse Blumberg as Figaro in the kitchen of 632 on Hudson.
Photo by Rebecca Fay for On Site Opera.
On Site Opera opened the second installment of a planned Beaumarchais trilogy on Tuesday night, with the North American premiere of The Marriage of Figaro, a version of the Beaumarchais play set to music by the largely forgotten Portuguese composer Marcos Portugal. Portugal's version of the opera came nine years after Mozart's and has been all but forgotten. Like Giovanni Paisiello's Barber of Seville (staged by this company a year ago) this is a noble work and well worthy of performance and revival. Figaro is still Figaro, and his wedding is always worth attending.


Set on three floors of 632 on Hudson, a stunning triplex built into a gorgeous old Greenwich Village walk-up, this Figaro was a brave and innovative move by Mr. Einhorn's group, which which specializes in staging performances where no opera company has gone before. A small audience (it was capped at 40 attendees and change) arrived to find cast members in character, showing them around the many-leveled space. When the show started, the listeners moved to arranged seating in the top floor kitchen, the second-floor boudoir and finally the central atrium. The cast (there is no chorus) moved with them, bringing the drama and humor of La Casa de Aguas Frescas on a particularly hectic wedding day.

A year ago, On Site made waves with the Paisiello Barber, mounted in an uptown Episcopal retreat space just off Central Park. For this performance, Eric Einhorn's company had the luxury of a returning Count Almaviva in the person of lyric tenor David Blalock. Mr. Blalock brought a strong presence and high-flying instrument to the Count, who is now the lecherous, almost villainous nobleman of the second Beaumarchais play. He captured the moral de-volution and dissolution of this would-be Lothario, who is determined to revive prima nocta in an attempt to bed the maid Susanna before she can marry her beloved Figaro. Frustrated, he ultimately turns to drink, a hint of what will come in the third play.

In the title role, Jesse Blumberg sang with a bluff baritone and the manic, Bugs Bunny-like energy needed for this quicksilver character, the Everyman who holds his own against his master's plots. Soprano Jeni Houser was a bright, pert Susanna, smarter than her intended and possessed of an inner flame that made her his perfect match. Their scenes together, tender at first and later occasionally violent (at one point she knees her would-be hubs in the crotch) had real fire and chemistry that was made even more intense in the close quarters. The very physical final act was a tour-de-force for both singers as they foiled Almaviva and (at least temporarily) saved his marriage.

As Rosina, soprano Camille Zamora was a discovery, with a rich instrument and a regal presence that was occasionally too big for the cramped quarters in which the singers were forced to work. (One would like to hear this artist sing the two great arias from the Mozart version.) As Cherubino, Melissa Wimbish was a spitfire presence, hiding in the stairwell as the audience entered and slumping through the early acts with the sloped shoulders of disaffected youth. Ms. Wimbish is also a funny, versatile actress, who brought energy and charm to her performance.

Mr. Einhorn cast canny, veteran singers in the smaller parts. These were led by Metropolitan Opera veteran Margaret Lattimore in the blowzy role of Marcellina, Figaro's would-be bride who discovers that marriage with the barber-turned-valet would just not work out. As Don Bartolo, David Langen offered comic gravity and expert support in ensembles, matched in pomposity by bass-baritone Ryan Kuster as Basilio. The moment when the latter character attempted to settle Figaro's dispute with Marcellina with a copy of Contract Law For Dummies produced the biggest belly laugh of the night. Finally, a third bass-baritone Antoine Hodge was both hammy and hilarious in the two very different roles of Antonio and Gusmano.

Portugal's score is no match for Mozart's endless invention and lacks the hummable hooks and tunes that make Figaro one of the keystones of the repertory. And yet, this performance revealed that the composer had a considerable gift for Haydn-esque melody, and that Beaumarchais' play still has emotional impact and heart. Geoffrey McDonald led a stripped-down, re-orchestrated ensemble including winds, two guitars and an accordion. This minimal force  balanced well with the singers even when playing unobtrusively behind the bar or above the audience on the upper floor of the atrium.
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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.