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Women make the ‘Marriage’ in Philadelphia

Operatoonity.com review: The Marriage of Figaro presented by Opera Philadelphia, a co-production with Lyric Opera of Kansas City, San Diego Opera, and Palm Beach Opera
Live performance: Sunday, April 20, 2:30 p.m.
The Academy of Music
Music: W.A. Mozart
Libretto: Lorenzo da Ponte
4.5 out of 5.0 stars

4.5strslg

 

 

 Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) and the Countess (soprano Layla Claire)

The stellar performances of Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) and the Countess (soprano Layla Claire) made for a happy ‘Marriage’ at Opera Phila. | All photographs by Kelly & Massa for Opera Philadelphia

Art imitates life, it has been said. If women are the glue that holds many marriages together, surely the women performing in Opera Philadelphia’s spring production made for a happier Marriage of Figaro. Soprano Ying Fang, soprano Layla Claire, and mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall reminded us over and over in their arias (and they have many arias in this l-o-n-g show) why we love Mozart. And how much Mozart must have loved women to give them so many glorious opportunities to be the glittering stars in his operatic firmament.

(mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall)

Mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall was delightful in her trouser role as Cherubino, who is smitten with all women.

Perhaps because the show runs long, conductor Corrado Rovaris chose a presto (molto!) tempo for the most beloved overture in operatic music, a tempo to make Mozart-loving hearts race. The Kentucky Derby should only run as briskly. The music and the performance of it by the orchestra and by the principal singers, eclipsed every other aspect in this production–the silly story, the heavy and cumbersome stage units, the occasional nonsensical set decor (what was living room furniture doing in a garden scene?), the confusing costuming. So allow me to vent some minor annoyances with this production so I can turn my attention what made this show really work.

Lamentation #1: This production premiered on May 1 in 1786. The merry month of May is Mother Nature’s gift to the Western Hemisphere. May is typically a fusillade of pink and white apple and dogwood blossoms, tidy and trim tulips, fragrant lilacs, and lush peonies. It’s when the earth comes alive again and reminds us why life is beautiful. So why the dark, heavy, colorless, lumbering set pieces in this show? Even the garden set looked more like a sepulcher–like the gloomy cemetery scene from Don Giovanni–than a garden full of romance.

Lamentation #2: The costume choices, especially for Figaro, were also an annoyance. In order to get this show past the censor, the creators played up the comedy and played down the political satire. Why confuse the audience any further by dressing Figaro like every other servant or valet? It’s an overly silly story and production companies shouldn’t rely on the arrival of any of the many popular arias in this show to clarify just who is who?

Lamentation #3: Lastly why was this production so dark? I longed for lightness, brightness, and flowers. Finally, the bright green gardener shows up to blow Cherubino’s cover, but it is too little greenery too late.

 Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) pretends to sing her love for the Count, as Figaro listens on.

Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) pretends to sing her love for the Count, as Figaro listens on, a very humorous conceit. But the garden looks more like a mausoleum hit by a tornado than a setting for romantic intrigues.

But, enough about some of this reviewer’s minor disappointments. If the voices are expected to thrill in this production, then thrill they did.

As Susanna, Figaro’s intended, Chinese Soprano Ying Fang was a sheer delight in every scene, in every way. In voice, carriage, appearance, Fang, who New York critics called “a star in the making,” was the ideal soubrette. She has a sweet clear soprano voice like a silver bell eager to make a good impression. The audience hung on every note of the renowned Sull’aria, perfectly sung with Canadian soprano Layla Claire. It was one of those treasured opera moments that would have been perfect to capture and then replay on a gloomy day in hopes of making your soul feel light and bright again.

 Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) overhears Marcellina loudly declaring Figaro will only marry her for money

In this scene, Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) overhears Marcellina loudly declaring Figaro will only marry her for money.

American soprano Cecelia Hall deftly delivered another jewel from Mozart’s ‘Marriage’ hit parade in her song of love “Voi che sapete.” Simply splendid in tone, pitch, and voicing! And expectations loomed high for this and all the beloved pieces from this well-known opera. In her trouser role, Hall turned in a charming overall performance and later in the show, she tossed in a few strains of “Finch’han dal vino,”  replete with boyish charm and hubris as a bit of stage business. Your cleverness was not lost on this Don G. fan, Ms. Hall.

 Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall) serenades Countess Almaviva (soprano Layla Claire) with a song.

Cherubino (mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall) serenades Countess Almaviva (soprano Layla Claire) with a song.

Cast as the lovelorn wife whose husband has a roving eye, Layla Claire sang and acted the role with sensitivity and believability–not always easy to do in an opera with an over-the-top storyline. She was brought to Philadelphia for her “virtuosic singing,” and her Broad Street debut didn’t disappoint. While the Countess doesn’t have the pluck Susanna does, she isn’t without contrivances, having agreed to exchange outfits with Susanna for the gloomy garden scene in order to trick her philandering husband. And of course she forgives him (but, without getting too political), isn’t it entertaining when women don’t let their men off the hook for the indiscretions? Politicians’ wives, take a note.

The men’s cavatinas and arias were sturdily sung by Pennsylvania’s own bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as Figaro and German baritone John Chest as Count Almaviva. Cedel’s comic timing was at its best during the scene when he learns that Marcellina is his mother and Bartolo his father.

The propensity for infidelity is hardly the most attractive quality in any man, but truth be told Chest made himself hard to resist in this scene because of his leading man qualities in voice and stature. (But resist she does because she loves Figaro.)

 The Count (baritone John Chest) thinks he has seduced Susanna (soprano Ying Fang); all the while, Susanna plans to reveal his infidelity.

The Count (baritone John Chest) thinks he has seduced Susanna (soprano Ying Fang); all the while, Susanna plans to reveal his infidelity.

All the buffo or stock characters–mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina, bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Bartolo, and tenor Jason Ferrante as Don Curzio–delivered scene-stealing comic turns.

Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) comes to grips with the news that Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) is, in fact, his mother and Bartolo is his father.

Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) comes to grips with the news that Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer) is, in fact, his mother and Bartolo is his father.

However, all the men were stellar when singing in company with the women in every Mozartian ensemble piece (and there are so many powerful ones in this show): the glorious 20-minute finale of (the traditional) Act II, the sextet in Act III , and the music and singing featured in the opera’s explosive conclusion, perfectly timed for a standing ovation.

Bartolo (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) and Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) rejoice over their newfound happiness.

Bartolo (bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi), Marcellina (mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer), Figaro (bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) and Susanna (soprano Ying Fang) rejoice over their newfound happiness.

The applause for the ladies of the ensemble was the most generous at curtain call, and deservedly so. However all the performances were strong in this show, with many virtuosic moments. I just wish that the design elements worked in tandem with the essential springtime spirit of the show to lift the soul as much as Mozart’s well performed music.

***

Opera Philadelphia opens their 2017-18 season with a blockbuster festival, Festival O. More details available here.

 

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Voices carry Phila’s ‘Carmelites’

Dialogues of the Carmelites Opera Phila

Opertoonity.com ReviewDialogues of the Carmelites
Live Performance
March 9, 2014
Presented by Curtis Opera Theatre, in association with Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents
The Perelman Theater, Philadelphia

3-stars-out-of-5

 

Voices carry, the saying goes. But can they carry an entire production?

Several of the young voices representing the Curtis Opera Theatre program tasked to sing The Dialogues of the Carmelites at Philadelphia’s famed Kimmel Center were nothing of short of extraordinary. But expecting them to carry a show when the staging and other production elements lacked cohesiveness was asking too much.

The Curtis Symphony Orchestra led by conductor Corrado Rovaris played Francis Poulenc’s capstone opera heroically. Alas, even supremely talented musicians couldn’t rescue a flawed show.

That’s because theater is part of opera. It’s even in the company’s name—Curtis Opera Theatre. If staging, lights, sets, and costumes aren’t as strong as the voices and the orchestra, the whole production suffers.  Theatrical elements shouldn’t supersede the voices (and we’ve all seen those operas), but they must inform and lift up the integrity of the whole work.

Carmelites Curtis Opera Theater

There aren’t many choral numbers in “Dialogues of the Carmelites,” but this hymn by the sisters was transcendent | photo by Cory Weaver

The selection of Carmelites as the next offering at the Perelman Theater held all the promise for a stunning production. It was the right size show for the space—a 650-seat venue with a modern affect. Curtis Opera Theatre had august partners in Opera Philadelphia and Kimmel Center Presents. However, the devil is certainly in the details for a nuanced masterwork like Carmelites. Critical artistic choices on which the success of the show hinged handicapped this production.

The show lacked artistic coherence. The stage was annoyingly dark most of the time. To open the show, there were three large avant garde looking set pieces layered on the stage, which left little room for natural movement. Despite the modern design introduced, the first costumes seen were completely in period. Between acts, the big trendy set pieces were removed, leaving only one by the end of the show. In the middle of Act II, folding tables like those used at a flea market were hauled out for the scene featuring all the nuns working and singing, and turquoise-colored fiberglass chairs were set out, like those you might see in a local junior high school classroom. In the middle of this act, French soldiers stormed the convent to terrorize the sisters, but the soldiers wore modern dress, wielding hand guns, looking like a street gang from a rough Philly neighborhood. Why this choice was made—to mash up 18th Century French Revolution with 21st Century Street Gang—was hardly evident to this reviewer.

By casually slipping into the modern period midway through the second act, many in the audience were robbed of the power of story at its core: during the Reign of Terror, the Catholic Church was denounced as an enemy of the Revolution. The Church’s properties were confiscated to fill Revolutionary coffers, and women and men religious were branded as traitors. This included an order of devout Carmelite nuns who refused to renounce their faith and are guillotined in a breathtaking scene at the end of the opera.  A modern opera set during a brutal and tumultuous period in history past hardly needs updating to remain meaningful.

As the show progressed, clerics came onstage dressed conventionally and came back wearing modern street clothes. It was also never clear that Blanche returned home to find it ransacked, which informed her decision to choose martyrdom. The final pivotal scene in the opera– the execution of the sisters–was even diminished by its staging. The sisters were executed onstage while facing the audience while customary staging of this scene leaves something more to the imagination, yielding significantly greater dramatic impact.

Rachel Sterrenberg

Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche | photo by Cory Weaver

To sum up, director Jordan Fein  (and by association, all the other creatives on the bill) simply missed the mark with this one.

Absent an integrated artistic interpretation, the Curtis students left to bring off the show shone like the future stars they surely will be, very nearly succeeding. Tenor Roy Hage who sang the Chevalier for the closing performance was a magical talent on stage. As Chevalier, his stage time is limited, but his ovation at curtain call was not. In character, he has a luminescent quality about him. His lush lyric tenor enraptured the audience.

Also commendable was soprano Rachel Sterrenberg as Blanche, Chevalier’s sister, who grows up in privilege but abandons it for a life of servitude with the Carmelites. She began a little stiffly in the first act. Once she shed the cumbersome period panniers for a simple nun’s habit, she warmed to her role, becoming a powerhouse by Act III.  This was despite some illogical staging that was highly distracting to audience members-yes, a fifth wall was introduced.

Show-stealing honors must go to soprano Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance.  Shafer is a gifted actress, and her voice was ideally suited to the role of the novitiate with a lighthearted, readily excitable manner.

Sarah Shafer

Sarah Shafer as Sister Constance | photo by Cory Weaver

As Mme. de Croissy, mezzo Shir Rozzen needed a bed for her death scene but was denied that simple set piece which would have helped tame her character who could only bust out all over the stage singing her dying aria.

Did the careless direction detract from Poulenc’s masterful score? Unfortunately it did, which might be the single worst shortcoming of this production, that it lacked a proper showcase for a seminal work.

Kudos to all the performers and musicians–you tried valiantly to carry this production. But in a perfect opera world, you shouldn’t have to do all the heavy lifting.

by Gale Martin

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