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Performances

Scene from <em>La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro</em>
26 Jun 2016

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

Last week an audience of 50 assembled in the kitchen of a luxurious West Village townhouse for a performance of Marriage of Figaro.

The “Other” Marriage of Figaro in a West Village Townhouse

A review by Andrew Moravcsik

Above: Scene from La pazza giornata o sia il matrimonio di Figaro

All photos courtesy of Pavel Antonov

 

It began when Figaro, dressed in modern clothes, walked up and asked me to hold one end of a tape measure, pulled the other end across the room, signaled the conductor for a downbeat, and began to sing: “Fourteen…” By the end of Scene One, he and Susanna were going at it hot and heavy (still singing) on top of a woodblock table. The audience then moved on to an elegant salon for the second scene before concluding with Act Two in a grand three-story atrium.

The visionary founders of On-Site Opera (OSO) have a name for such intimate performances in hand-picked spaces appropriate to the libretto: “immersive opera.” They are betting that immersive opera will help transform 21st-century opera. I am a believer, and I am not alone: tickets to all five performances sold out in three hours. It is not hard to understand why. Immersive opera offers a uniquely thrilling experience: singers meet your gaze, brush you as they pass, and—even if it sometimes leaves your ears ringing—sing just a few feet away. Of course big houses will always be there for those who prefer opera singers to remain behind the fourth wall. (And perhaps this approach will always be impractical for the grand operas of composers like Wagner—though I would be tempted to see Tristan und Isolde staged on the dark parapet of a windswept Brittany castle, the audience huddled around the dying hero.) Yet for smaller-scale operas, immersive opera recaptures—and often exceeds—the intimacy of the tiny theaters in Italy for which many operas were originally conceived.

Figaro_cast.pngL to R: Ginny Weant, Melissa Wimbish, David Blalock, Jesse Blumberg, Jeni Houser, Camille Zamora, Margaret Lattimore, David Langan

The folks at OSO do not simply perform operas in ways you have never seen. They perform operas you have never heard. This was not Mozart and da Ponte’s Figaro, but a version by Marcos Portugal. Born in Lisbon in 1762, Portugal is arguably the most distinguished classical music composer in the history of his native land. Once the toast of Italy, he supplied theaters there with more than 40 operas in under a decade. Today he is largely forgotten, though he did pen the first national anthems of both Portugal and Brazil, as well as some lovely religious music. (Check out his Misse Grande here). Having become a Brazilian citizen, he died in Rio de Janeiro in 1830.

Portugal composed his Figaro for the opening night of the Venetian Carnival season in 1799, thirteen years after Mozart’s version. Gaetano Rossi, who supplied the text, surely knew the earlier libretto. Though Rossi followed Beaumarchais’ title rather than da Ponte’s (“La Pazza giornata, ovvero Il mattrimonio di Figaro” / “The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro”) and recast the work as a two-act opera buffa, he borrowed many of da Ponte’s revisions, additions and cuts, as well as some of his wording.

Portugal’s score, however, cannot compete with Mozart’s. His music is pleasing but hardly memorable—a pale imitation of Cimarosa, Jommelli and other minor composers of the Neapolitan School. Occasional flashes of melodic or harmonic inspiration in the countess’s aria, the letter duet, and the two finales, for example, are not sustained. Nor did José Luis Iglésias’s atmospheric reduction for an Iberian-accented chamber orchestra (complete with guitar and accordion), commissioned by OSO, fully convey Portugal’s modest orchestral innovations, for example his treatment of woodwinds. Ultimately one could not help being reminded of the exceptional genius of Mozart, and even of the winning qualities of second-tier composers like Paisiello, whose Barbiere di Siviglia remained popular for a generation and, as OSO demonstrated last year, still can enchant us today.

Given the weakness of Portugal’s score, prime responsibility for the performance’s success rested on its all-American cast of singers. The English translation of the libretto by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray did not ease their task. While it abounds with clever rhymes, its reliance on Anglo-Saxon vowels rendered the text far more difficult to sing. I would have preferred to hear the original Italian with supertitles, as OSO employed last year.

In these challenging circumstances, three singers stood out. Houston-born soprano Camille Zamora, a singer of wide repertoire and myriad musical interests, perfectly embodied the wronged and vulnerable yet proud Contessa, while phrasing every note with elegance and sensitivity. Margaret Lattimore, a veteran of the Met and many other grand stages, gave a veritable lesson in stage technique, scaling down a large warm mezzo to the intimate setting and effortlessly acting circles around singers two decades her junior. Melissa Wimbish, a Baltimore-based mezzo who specializes in contemporary music and sings Indie Rock on the side, made an uncannily convincing Cherubino. Her commitment to immersive opera is so great that when I met her on the stairwell after the performance, she remained in character.

Other members of the ensemble offered spirited accounts. The extensive experience of Michigan-trained baritone Jesse Blumberg as a Lieder singer showed in his soft-grained and elegantly sung Figaro. Experienced bass-baritone David Langan displayed crisp diction and suave manner as lawyerly Don Bartolo, while Mannes graduate student Ginny Weant made the most of a chipper cameo as Cecchina (da Ponte’s Barberina). Enthusiastic Antoine Hodge was vocally assured in the dual roles of Antonio and Gusmano (da Ponte’s Don Curzio).

Sometimes, however, immediate proximity can highlight vocal limitations in young singers whose voices have yet to smooth out entirely. Jeni Houser brought impressive technique to Portugal’s Susanna, a lyric coloratura soprano role, but her high notes sometimes sounded edgy in the small space. The same was true of tenor David Blalock, who returned from the cast of last year’s Barbiere to portray again the (now slightly older but surely no wiser) Conte Almaviva. OSO Music Director Geoffrey McDonald conducted with customary assurance.

Portugal’s Figaro marks the midpoint of OSO’s three-year Beaumarchais trilogy. It began last June with the Paisiello and will end next June with Darius Mihaud’s Le Mére Coupable.(The location is still to be announced.) Along with Massenet’s Cherubin, these two works are the best of many operas not by Mozart or Rossini that draw on the Beaumarchais characters. I’ll be there, but I hope thereafter that OSO upgrades to canonical works of greater proven quality, which should further intensify the immersive experience.

OSO faces one final issue, namely how to manage the list of disappointed patrons left outside—reportedly more numerous than the lucky few who made it in. Why not do the Met one better and double down digitally? OSO might beam future performances as they happen to an overflow space with a bank of large screens, a great sound system, and a hip mixologist behind the bar. Now that would be 21st century opera!

Andrew Moravcsik

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