The 2012 Fort Worth Opera Festival, now nearing its conclusion, presented the last of its three performances of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro on Friday evening. A traditional approach governed everything from the modest yet handsome sets to the conservative musical interpretation. This was combined with brilliant direction, casting, and acting to produce a Figaro that was laugh-out-loud funny and musically sensitive, highlighting the composer (and his equally great librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte) as the true star of the evening.
Variety was essential to the success of this production. Each of the leads had a unique voice in its color and timbre, which also was well suited to the character. The voices alone lent innocence to Susanna, gravity to the Count, vigor to Cherubino, a distant poise to the Countess, and so on: qualities which were enhanced by generally tasteful and engaging acting. When done right, not much more than this is needed to unleash the power of a great composer. There was no radically modern staging or exaggerated musicality, and Mozart was no worse off for it.
The plot, taken from Beaumarchais’ play of the same title, involves a dizzying amount of scheming and trickery. Director Eric Einhorn let this all unfold with a great sense of comic timing, creatively employing props and motion of characters onstage, and only occasionally indulging in gratuitous gags. The latter still came off quite well: Cherubino absentmindedly marching in place outside the closed curtain at the end of Act I, or gesturing to push the tempo after an intentionally too-slow start to “Voi che sapete”; and the house lights coming up when Figaro sings “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi”, literally inviting men in the audience to “open their eyes” to the infidelities of the women around them. The energetic deportment and occasional clowning of Figaro, Cherubino, and Susanna aided tremendously.
Casting, as with direction, was spot on. The four most mature voices were used in service of the Count, Countess, Marcellina, and Don Bartolo, with the three more youthful ones assigned to Figaro, Susanna, and Cherubino. Particularly in the case of Cherubino, who received the loudest ovation afterward, youth does not equal immaturity. It merely allowed for an appropriately refreshing reading of this seminal comedy.
Along with mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta (Cherubino, a “pants” role), soprano Jan Cornelius (Countess Almaviva) was most enthusiastically received. I felt baritone Jonathan Beyer (Count Almaviva) was as good if not better than anyone else on stage, and soprano Andrea Carroll (Susanna) was not far behind the other two leading ladies. Ms. Cornelius and Mr. Beyer brought great poise to their aristocratic roles, the former captivating in her melancholy and the latter menacing and subtle. Mr. Beyer relied on quiet strength in his acting, and inflected his voice with great power and expressive range while never losing an intense, beautiful core. Ms. Cornelius’ style leaned far more towards the bel canto than any of her colleagues, but her singing was marvelous, and it worked well to create a character. Mezzo-soprano Kathryn Cowdrick excelled as the conspiring and (later) matronly Marcellina, and Rod Nelman’s resonant bass was put to good use in the supporting role of Don Bartolo.
As for the youthful roles, Ms. Giunta was a rambunctious, vocally splendid Cherubino. The evenness of tone throughout her range was phenomenal; she has all the flexibility and brightness of a soprano perfectly blended with a mezzo’s warmth and power. Ms. Carroll presented a strong, convincing character and gave a performance that was even more remarkable given her young age. She sang with a bright, rounded voice that she manipulated with apparent ease, and will be one to keep an eye on, especially as her voice develops over time. As Figaro, Donovan Singletary was fun to watch, and generally to listen to as well. For my taste, he let the character’s emotions distort the actual sound of his voice a bit too much (for example turning “singing” per se into speech or breathy whispers), but it was all effective, and his more flowing arias were indeed touching and well sung. His take on “Se vuol ballare” was unusually slow and sensual, matching the horn part in the accompaniment rather than the pizzicato strings, and very distinctive.
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