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Bel Cantanti always offers exciting productions.
This unusual company, enthusiastically led and conducted by Dr. Katerina Souvorova, produces highly focused presentations of operas, often using an eight-piece orchestra to accompany its troupe, along with minimalist sets. If this were not unusual enough, the company presents a repertoire not often encountered in the U.S Russian operas, Austrian operettas, and obscure Baroque pieces – represented this season respectively by Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Tsar’s Bride,” von Suppé’s “Beautiful Galatea, and von Gluck’s “Orteo ed Euridice.”
Currently, however, Bel Cantanti is presenting one of the standards of international opera: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” As usual, however, Bel Cantanti offers its own unusual interpretation. Here, the costumes and props are all made of the sheet music from the show itself!
The rococo wigs, for example, are streamers rolled from his sheet music. Shoes, too, appear to be white, until closer inspection reveals them to sport musical notes and time signatures.
All the while, the ladies’ gowns are imprinted with the libretto or dramatic text of the opera. It is as if the characters of the text have stepped out of the words and music and become incarnate on stage, providing a field day for postmodern literary critics who prioritize the reader’s experience of a text above the author’s intentions.
A strangely modern or post-modern take on a classic? Let us not forget that Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” has always been revolutionary and a little outré. Victorian critic Henry Edward Krehbiel sniffed that there is “moral grossness which pollutes” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
The opera certainly represents an up-ending of history in which the lower classes, at last, give the aristocracy its comeuppance. Figaro and Susanna, lovers, are servants to the Count Almaviva and are soon to be married. However, Count Almaviva, at whose estate they serve, is smitten with beautiful Susanna, and attempts a droit du seigneur, that is, the “right” of a feudal lord to sleep with a female servant the night before her wedding.
Figaro, Susanna, and the Count’s wife, the Contessa Almariva, spoil the Count’s lustful plans through a variety of stratagems. Adding to all this is Cherubino, callow youth and “amorous butterfly, flitting around the castle night and day, upsetting all the pretty girls,” in the words of Figaro. Cherubino, too, will play a role in the Count’s undoing.
The Bel Cantanti production of “Figaro” has many wonderful moments and surprises, by no means limited to stage and costume designer Ksenia Litvak’s clever solution of sets and props made from the sheet music and libretto!
We refer to the excellent comedic acting, especially by Robert Mellon with a slightly roguish brush mustache as the wily Figaro and Emily Tweedy as the beautiful Susanna of strong character who “gives as much as she gets” from the Count and even Figaro himself.
Mellon, described in the program notes as having a dark baritone, shines from the moment he counts out and sings out “Five…ten…twenty…” at the beginning of the opera, as he measures the room for his new bride. Tweedy is in beautiful voice for the many beautiful arias and duets of Susanna, especially as she gives Figaro a musical reminder that the Count may deliberately send him miles away to get him out of the way, “ding-dong!”
While the entire cast is good, we would like to single out for particular interest Francesca Aguado, who performs outstandingly as Cherubino. This is indeed a challenging role, for it requires a woman to play a saucy youth with both masculinity and a certain delicacy of character.
She handles these acting and vocal duties with vigor, singing wondrously the aria “I don’t know anymore what I am,” in which Cherubino’s lovesickness for the Susanna, the Contessa and really every other woman at court is expressed with great ardor.
I’m pleased to note the mezzo-soprano singing Cherubino also has a significant Prince George’s County connection, having received her bachelor’s degree in vocal performance from the University of Maryland at College Park.
Finally, another excellent performer in the cast is Claire Kuttler as the wronged Contessa, singing soulfully in the arias of loneliness such as “Grant, love, some comfort” and “Where are they, the beautiful moments.” These beautiful moments in “Figaro” and especially this production of it shows there is a side to this opera buffa or comic opera which borders on pathos.
Other welcome elements of the production include a subtle use of spotlight changes for shifts in mood as well as the characters coming in by pairs during the overture, to “introduce” themselves to the audience.
We were occasionally of divided opinion: admiration that a small-scale production could be so loyal to the original opera, but delighted at unexpected deviations from tradition, as when a courtly eighteenth-century minuet is accompanied jarringly but pleasingly by Latin castanets.
Bel Cantanti’s four-act “The Marriage of Figaro” is very much a full-scale production, running three-and-a-half hours, including two fifteen-minute intermissions. The production plays at the Randolph Road Theatre in Silver Spring through March 17.