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In its affable, tradition-bound way, Wolf Trap Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was a finely staged piece of work. Director Paula Williams honed her company of young singers into an energetic and believable ensemble and, with one exceptionLauren Curnow’s wildly mugging Marcellina, who looked as if she had bounced in from another productiongauged the comedy to a recognizably human scale. She found the heartache in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto, too: If the production never went far enough to qualify as a dark deconstruction à la Peter Sellars, it certainly never soft-pedaled the characters’ pain.
And from the 10th row of the Filene Center, all the detailed acting work (not to mention the cast’s considerable good looks) read beautifully. But how must the show have looked from the oh-so-distant balcony or a million miles away on the lawn? The Filene is a lovely venue for hearing opera; seeing it there is another story, however. Figaro may be famous for its ever-expanding vocal ensembles, but they’re built from heated one-on-one encounters and hastily exchanged intimacies that lose color and point in large spaces.
Audiences at Washington Opera (or the Met, fer crissakes) have to resign themselves to a long-distance romance with Mozart. But Wolf Trap has the Mozart lover’s dream just down the street from the Filene Center: the Barns, which offers acoustics and audience proximity friendly not only to this composer but also to youthful voices and detail-conscious directors such as Williams. Obviously, the prestige and box-office potential of the Filene is seductive to Wolf Trap Opera, but this annual mismatch of material to venue is starting to seem downright perverse.
Happily, the singers resisted the temptation to push or broaden their stage business to fill the audience’s space, inviting us all, instead, into theirs. The emotional promptings of the words and music were followed with honesty and nuance, no more so than in Lauren Skuce’s performance as Susanna. No big-face comedienne or squeaky soubrette, this Susanna was grounded, sharp-witted, and fiercely loyal. She wore her glinting defiance against the Count like a badge but also let us see the disgust and deep hurt his predatory advances triggered in her. She kissed Figaro as if she meant it, and their relationship had a buoyancy and lived-in ease. And Susanna’s reluctance to hurt Figaro in her fourth-act ariaas well as her nagging self-doubtwere canny touches by Skuce and her director.
Oren Gradus’ boyish energy as Figaro proved the perfect foil to Skuce. As quickly exasperated or roused to passion as his Susanna, Gradus’ Figaro was less a budding revolutionary than a puppyish nice guy who got kicked one time too many, put aside his sense of class inferiority, and decided to face down a dangerous boss regardless of the consequences. Like Skuce, Gradus never let his character’s poise slip. And Keith Phares played the Count without resorting to the mustache-twirling and cheesy leer of a cartoon villain, and lost none of his threat by making his points subtly.
Angela Fout was a depressive Countess, flaring to life only fitfullyas when a Rosie O’Donnell smile would flash across her face during some of her more delicious conspirings with Susanna. It’s a perfectly valid way of playing the role but doesn’t allow for a tremendous variety of expression. Nonetheless, Fout was just right in her melting, erotically confused response to Cherubino’s advances. Cherubino himself was suitably amorous, and the director made yet another good choice in sending the page boy skittering away in embarrassment any time one of the women called his flirtatious bluffs. But Adriana Zabala was far too pretty, her features too petite and feminine, to convince us that she was playing a young man.
The supporting roles were all cast from strength and treated with a light touch, but I don’t remember the stage miking producing such canned, inconsistent, two-dimensional sound when I heard Wolf Trap Opera’s Don Giovanni last summer. The result, in Figaro, was a flattening of timbral differences between voices. All five women in the production sounded uncannily alike: lightweight lower registers, bright and vibrant middle voices, and top notes that took on a harsh edge when their singing got louder. There were some distinctions, to be sure, such as Skuce’s sultry mezzoish tone on lower notes, Fout’s ability to float high notes to lovely effect, or Zabala’s oddly braying sound on certain vowels. But overall, the Filene’s sound engineering made the women seem almost interchangeable.
The men fared slightly better, thanks to Gradus’ refreshingly deep, genuine bass in a role that sometimes attracts higher voices. But he made more of a vocal impact last month in A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Barnsas did several of the women, who at that time sounded far more individual. Phares and the baritonal Bartolo of Steven Humes sounded and looked very much alike, with Phares’ voice slightly more recessive but also more elegantly tuned.
Carl Toms’ sets, from a production that originated at New York City Opera, were the same parchment-colored walls and towering windows we’ve seen a thousand times before in other stagings of Figaro, but they took on an evocative glow under Mark Stanley’s lights. Stanley, however, came to grief in the same place so many others have: In the name of coverage, he bathed supposedly night-shrouded Act 4 in enough light to perform brain surgery by.
Christopher Larkin’s conducting was splendidly lively and disciplined. To his credit, he had his singers ornament repeated sections of arias and encouraged harpsichordist Israel Gursky to create a web of clever musical allusions during the recitatives. Gursky’s playing, which became a little show unto itself, had the advantage of being miked within an inch of its life. The keyboard notes sailed over an orchestra that, in the acoustic mix, was reduced to a very polite form of wallpaper music.
But maybe that’s what Mozart at the Filene is all about: a graceful soundtrack for picnicking and stargazing on the lawn, and imagining that Vienna is actually, well, Vienna. The folks out there doing the alfresco thang were, no doubt, unfazed by having a perspective on the stage action akin to watching a flea circusor by hearing Mozart’s sublime score blared through loudspeakers and disfigured by squawking birds, chirping crickets, and the roar of low-flying aircraft. (Can’t someone shoot those things down?) The rest of us were wondering why Wolf Trap doesn’t just keep its best art locked up in the Barns. CP