COLLEGE PARK – Henry Edward Krehbiel, in his Victorian-era volume “A Book of Operas,” complained about “the moral grossness which pollutes” Mozart’s opera “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Played at The Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center, Figaro was delightful.
The opera’s bawdy elements, while objectionable for Victorians, may now be seen as an enticement for modern audiences, especially for those predisposed to think of opera as stuffy and stodgy.
Mozart’s opera, based on a play by the French dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais, presents Figaro and Susanna, servants to the Count Almaviva, as very much in love and about to be married.
The problem is that Count Almaviva, whose estate they serve, is infatuated with Susanna, and intrudes both, directly and indirectly, to try to exercise an outmoded “droit du seigneur,” that is, the right of a feudal lord to have sexual relations with a servant on the evening before her wedding. The plot of the opera consists of humorous ways in which Figaro, Susanna and the Count’s wife, Countess Rosina, thwart the Count’s lustful designs. “Two can play at that game,” vows the wily Figaro, modernizing the language a little.
Eventually, the opera’s action, comedy and intrigues become so frantic “we don’t know who is tricking whom,” in the words of Marcellina, a middle-aged woman who is also infatuated with Figaro.
We recently availed ourselves of a wonderful opportunity to see “The Marriage of Figaro” during its all-too-brief three-performance run at the University of Maryland, College Park’s Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center. During the delightful production, the character of Figaro was played with energy and personality by Jeremy Harr.
This was especially true of his performance of the aria “Non più Andrai” (“No more gallivanting”), an ironic piece sung in praise of military life, which he sang with resonance, power and assurance. Zyda Culpepper-Baldwin as Susanna demonstrated both the charm and hardness required for the contrivances and intrigue at court; this was especially true of her finely blended duets with Figaro, the Count and the Countess.
Shafali Jalota was a soulful Countess, who (to quote Shakespeare) responds “more in sorrow than in anger” to her husband’s attraction to Susanna. Her plaintive singing as Rosina shone in the arias of loneliness in Acts I and III, “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro” (“Grant, love, some comfort”) and “Dove sono i bei momenti” (“Where are they, the beautiful moments”). Such pieces add welcome contrast and emotional resonance to Mozart’s generally comedic treatment of the situation.
One part is particularly worthy of mention. This opera, like many works of the Rococo Age and the Baroque Era which preceded it, deals with illusions and masks versus reality. This production played on this trope through its casting and treatment of Cherubino, the Count’s page. While the character is a romantic young man, the role here (as is customary) was played by a woman. At one point during the play, Cherubina is obliged to dress like a woman during an act of subterfuge! This convoluted woman-playing-a-man-playing-a-woman role was handled with zest by Amanda Staub, hiding behind chairs, on chairs, in disguises, and leaping out of windows. Her voice also soars in Cheribino’s aria “Non so più cosa son,” or “I don’t know anymore what I am.”
“The Marriage of Figaro” was produced as a so-called University of Maryland Opera Studio “white opera” production, a term which requires some explanation. The studio offers several production levels of opera. Its “Opera al Fresco” format, for example, offers a program which usually includes well-known scenes from several operatic works, without costumes and to piano accompaniment.
At other times, the Opera Studio puts on a fully staged opera, featuring opera students at Maryland, full costumes, ornate staging and full orchestra. The Studio’s “white opera,” of which “The Marriage of Figaro” production was an example, falls into a third category: sets and costuming are somewhat simplified, but the operas are staged as full-length productions with full orchestration. Subtitles of the translated script also appear over the stage during the performance.
This production used the simplified staging to great effect. Characters wore costumes in white and antique white in the general style of the eighteenth century, and the props of freestanding doors, stylized trees, and spartanly ornate furniture not only helped the audience follow the story but gave off a very romantic feeling, especially as trees lit up and the backdrops were illuminated with blue and purple twilight colors. The subtitles in English were extensive and highly accessible to a general audience. Slapstick and physical comedy were also enormously helpful in rendering the characters likable and the story comprehensible.
While this production ran only for three performances, we recommend the University of Maryland’s future productions in this vein enthusiastically—it is a splendid way to experience an opera pared down to its core essentials, much as studio recording sessions of the Beatles have been released in recent years in allowing audiences to hear things “below the surface” which may have escaped earlier notice. This outstanding performance of “Figaro” also causes us to anticipate the University of Maryland’s full-blown production of Kurt Weill’s “Street Scene,” forthcoming in the spring of 2019 eagerly!