As the autumn opera of the Academy of Vocal Arts’ 85th year, Le nozze di Figaro returned for seven performances this November: five in AVA’s intimate Helen Corning Warden Theater (named for the founder), one at the suburban Haverford School and one at Lehigh University, 70 miles from Philadelphia. If anyone needs proof that AVA’s Resident Artists and alumni deserve their frequent appearances in Opera News, this was it: the entire cast was vocally first-rate, all giving distinctive portrayals. This includes five in their first year, especially soprano Emily Margevich as Barbarina and basses Cody Müller as Bartolo and Griffen Hogan Tracy as Antonio.

Brent Michael Smith (Figaro) and Pascale Spinney (Cherubino) © Paul Sirochman
Brent Michael Smith (Figaro) and Pascale Spinney (Cherubino)
© Paul Sirochman

In the title role, tall, dashing bass Brent Michael Smith burst with energy and optimism while also revealing vulnerability, a different form of the humanity I noted in his Frère Laurence in AVA’s Roméo et Juliette last season, his voice both solid and flexible. As his bride Susanna, soprano Aubry Ballarò balanced her character’s spunk, wit and indignation with tenderness and multiple levels of affection – for Cherubino, the Countess and Figaro. She used her sparkling yet sweet voice expertly to convey all of the above, offering a lovely, subtle “Deh, vieni, non tardar.”

Baritone Timothy Murray was a suave, elegant but pompous, mean and lecherous Count, projecting strong feelings in “Hai già vinta la causa… Vedrò mentr’io sospiro.” The Count’s repentance in the finale seemed truly sincere, matching the gorgeous, moving music, before he started canoodling with Barbarina (silly staging-bit) as the music turned celebratory.

Kara Mulder (Countess Almaviva) © Paul Sirochman
Kara Mulder (Countess Almaviva)
© Paul Sirochman

Two of the opera’s most beautiful arias were given wonderful renditions by stunning soprano Kara Mulder: gentle tone for the poignant “Porgi amor” and her vocal sheen and dramatic range for the emotions in “Dove sono” and its long, powerful recitative. She and her Susanna blended beautifully in “Canzonetta sull’aria.” Mulder’s Countess was very real, expressive on all levels, including visually.

Mezzo Pascale Spinney’s bright voice and pert personality suited Cherubino’s boyishness; both arias were vocally and interpretively delightful mirrors of his teenage soul. Chelsea Laggan’s darker mezzo timbre suited her exasperating, then amusing and ultimately sympathetic Marcellina.

But this was also a seamless ensemble performance, everyone and everything moving with ease and spontaneity through the multitude of complicated interactions, heartfelt emotions and comical situations. Credit to director David Gately, in his 16th AVA production, for taking advantage of the acting ability of his singers and guiding them while no doubt giving freer rein to the most skilled. Having only one cast for the whole run, while risky, also helped: all rehearsals were devoted to a single group.

Academy of Vocal Arts' <i>Le nozze di Figaro</i> © Paul Sirochman
Academy of Vocal Arts' Le nozze di Figaro
© Paul Sirochman

As often as I’ve experienced Figaro over the decades, I always look forward to certain brilliant sequences. But I fear that the director might spoil them with some personal distortion. Thankfully, Gately allowed Beaumarchais, Mozart and Da Ponte to weave their magic, for example, in the hide-and-seek scenes between the Count and Cherubino, Susanna and Cherubino and in the full-cast final scene. Gately captured those fleeting yet significant moments such as when the sheepish Count plaintively calls his wife “Rosina” and she responds bitterly “I am no longer she!” Mulder’s Countess projected dignity and strength in that line, with a bitter glare at Murray's Count, momentarily disconcerted.

And what a pleasure to see the 18th century onstage (how avant-garde!) in attractive sets by Peter Harrison (with AVA since 1989) in which all the crucial ins and outs of the action had all the right doors, windows, arbors, pathways and furniture, yet the relatively small stage never seemed crowded. Era-appropriate costumes, both sumptuous and earthy, were designed by Val Starr, Staff Costume Designer since 1977, with over 175 productions to her credit.

But would the Count slap the Countess and threaten Cherubino with a rifle instead of a sword? And what a pity to cut the charming scene “Venite, inginocchiatevi” with its hints that the Countess is drawn to Cherubino: instead, Gately had her show it almost too much during "Voi che sapete".

The core of Figaro is Mozart, so I offer enormous gratitude to AVA’s longtime Music Director, Christofer Macatsoris, remarkable for his vast knowledge, astute coaching and depth of sensitivity to the music. As in previous experiences of his opera-conducting, I again had the sensation that the tempi could not have been otherwise and that they were as the composer intended, linked to the emotions and with room for singers (and instrumentalists) to breathe. The AVA Opera Orchestra added its high standards, including in woodwind and brass solos and the exquisite continuo intro to “Se vuol ballare” with cellist Vivian Barton Dozor.

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