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Jonathan Lasch as Figaro (photo courtesy of Jessi Franko)
15 Jun 2015

Princeton Festival: Le Nozze di Figaro

The Princeton Festival has established a reputation for high-quality summer opera. In recent years works by Handel, Britten, Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Wagner and Gershwin have been performed at Matthews Theater on Princeton University campus: a 1100-seat auditorium with good sight-lines though a somewhat dry and uneven acoustic.

Princeton Festival: Le Nozze di Figaro

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Jonathan Lasch as Figaro

Photos courtesy of Jessi Franko


This summer the festival is offering an enjoyable and compelling production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, which demonstrates not just the enduring beauty of this evergreen opera, but the high quality of young singers available to sing it today.

The cast was headed by three uncommonly large-voiced Mozartians. Jonathan Lasch, a burly bass-baritone who has trained in numerous young singers’ programs, sang a lusty, heavy-weight Figaro. His best moments came in Act IV, when he relaxed and demonstrated more vocal colors. Baritone Sean Anderson brought similar vocal force to the role of Count Almaviva, making much of his angry Act III aria. The rest might have profited from a bit more aristocratic restraint.

06.10.15_Princeton_Figaro_0539_EDIT.pngJonathan Lasch as Figaro, Cassandra Zoé Velasco as Cherubino, Sean Anderson as Count Almaviva

Canadian soprano Katherine Whyte portrayed the Countess Almaviva as a deeply passionate woman. She demonstrated a keen artistic sensibility throughout, for example with lovely pianissimo phrasing in the second verse of “Dove sono.” Still, the sustained notes in her two big arias cruelly exposed a wobble in the voice—which disappeared, however, in ensembles and swifter passages, where she was uncommonly dramatic. Overall, one wonders if Whyte is a budding spinto who has outgrown this role.

Another bit of slightly problematic casting is Haeran Hong, a Korean-born Juilliard-trained soprano who won the Queen Elizabeth competition in 2011, as Susanna. To be sure, hers was a polished performance from an artist who is going places. She sang precisely and tastefully: I particularly liked the delicately interpolated B-flat at the end of “Deh vieni.” She looked lovely and acted sympathetically. That being said, the lighter weight and coolly metallic edge of her voice betrays a lyric coloratura or “soubrette”, rather than a warmer lyric soprano for which the role of Susanna was written. For me, this type of vocal mismatch undermines both characterization and ensemble.

A worthy audience favorite was 25-year old Mexican Cassandra Zoé-Velasco, who already has a career well under way. She possesses a mezzo voice with real color and depth. She phrased with mature artistic sensibility while believably portraying Cherubino as an awkward adolescent.

06.11.15_Princeton_Figaro_0428_EDIT.pngSean Anderson as Count Almaviva, Katherine Whyte as the Countess

The rest of the cast was solid down to the shortest role. Two veterans, American Katheryn Krasovec and Puerto Rican Ricardo Lugo, memorably assumed the roles of Marcellina and Bartolo. Both are fine singing actors, with Krasovec’s Marcellina in particular making much of her character’s humanity, while remaining genuinely funny. Jessica Beebe, a doctoral candidate at Indiana with a lifetime of experience as a young choral soloist, made the most of Barbarina’s half aria. David Kellett, Studio Instructor on the Princeton faculty, lacks the extra bit of edge one has come to expect in the character role of Don Bazilio and he transposed some words, but he acted and sang well in this character’s insinuating asides. Paul An, a versatile young American bass, and Vincent DiPeri, a musical theater singer trained at the local Westminster Choir College, turned in creditable performances as Antonio and Don Curzio.

The greatest room for improvement of this production during the run, I believe, lies in the conducting. On the plus side, conductor Richard Tang Yuk’s conception of Mozart is smooth and unfussy. Conducting one or two beats to the bar, he quickly established the elegant flow that is a hallmark of fine Mozart operatic accompaniment—yet is often absent from performance-practice renditions. The ensemble was tight, with only a few opening-night bobbles.

On the minus side, Yuk’s dynamics remain rather unvaryingly and unnecessarily loud, given the small size of the pit band—a quality even more distracting in a hall ill-designed for opera. It is easy to forget that in this opera Mozart specifically marked most non-choral numbers and almost all vocal entries piano, with forte employed almost exclusively only for occasional emphasis, climaxes, and choral numbers. In the few moments when the scoring forced the orchestra down to a steady piano (e.g. “Voi che sapete” and “Deh vieni”), it was as if a sonic scrim had lifted and the singers could reach over the orchestra and touch the audience directly. Lower volume, combined with a warmer more yielding orchestral timbre and a bit more rubato, might also encourage the young singers to take the edge off of what was (despite slow tempi) a needlessly boisterous account and, rather, to highlight the elegant vocal colors and subtle Italian wordplay so central to this opera.

06.11.15_Princeton_Figaro_0711_EDIT.pngRicardo Lugo as Bartolo, Kathryn Krasovec as Marcellina, Jonathan Lasch as Figaro, Haeran Hong as Susanna

The hyper-traditional and realistic stage design by Peter Dean Beck was so pleasing to the eye that it elicited audience applause. Stephen LaCosse’s direction, while largely following time-tested formulas, included at least one original idea borrowed from Rosenkavalier: Marcellina, Cherubino, Susanna and the Countess (as well as Don Basilio!) each looked into a hand mirror and all saw the different things that the passage of time had wrought. A few other notions were misconceived: for example, no matter how much of an impulsive teenager he is, Cherubino would never reach up and grab the Countess’s face, while, for her part, the Countess would surely take the Count’s arm in public, if only to save face.

The opening night performance I attended was sold out, and the audience gave a standing ovation. This worthy production returns for Sunday matinees on June 21 and 28.

Andrew Moravcsik

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