As all fans of the iconic British band Queen know, the words “Figaro Magnifico-o-o-o” ring out in their great rock anthem “Bohemian Rhapsody.” It’s not surprising that this song is often called “operatic,” since one of Freddie Mercury’s goals was to dissolve the usual boundaries between musical categories.
I thought of him during the dress rehearsal of “The Marriage of Figaro,” in production by Geneva Light Opera at the Smith Opera House this week. Freddie would have appreciated how the comedic volatility of Lorenzo da Ponte’s script and the profound humanity of Mozart’s score emerged naturally and accessibly. Kudos to director Marie Allyn King, new to GLO, to returning conductor James Blachly, to their remarkable performers, and to the acoustics of the Smith, in which the un-miked voices shine.
(For a colorful summary of the origins, plot and characteristics of the opera, see today’s “JumpStart” section.)
“Figaro,” one of the supreme and most beloved operas of all time, is credited as “the greatest of all social comedies.” It is, of course, very funny.
But the innovative text by da Ponte inspired Mozart to transcend the standard conventions of comedy of the day. Together, the pair invested the dizzying plot with rich psychological depth, creating realistic emotional dynamics among fully rounded and evolving characters. Nothing is one-dimensional.
At the performance I saw, a wide range of nuance was conveyed. For example: the famous recognition-scene, the favorite of Mozart himself, in which the secret of Figaro’s parentage is outed. Insightful gestures and groupings by King and stage manager Edward Ehinger built up a picture of the disruptive farce seamlessly giving way to truly touching familial reconciliation.
Maestro Blachly, in his fifth year on our podium, conducts his chamber orchestra of gifted professionals through Mozart’s quicksilver score with his familiar sprightly touch and acute insights. Elizabeth Rodgers invests the harpsichord continuo for the recitatives with her signature idiomatic grace.
Like the orchestra, the vocalists include newcomers and GLO alums. In the title role, bass Tyler Putnam is a natural, confident Figaro: Rich of voice and nimbly alert to the fluctuating pulse of his character’s mind. Soprano Michelle Seipel as Susanna, his fiancée, then wife, is an ideal match for him. Dramatically and vocally, she consistently impresses and charms across the ever-shifting situations. Together, they light up the stage.
Savvy baritone Robert Garner helped me appreciate the role of the Count Almaviva by highlighting his presumptions of privilege without dehumanizing him. As the Countess Almaviva, soprano Darlene Bennett strongly etches the melancholy of her life with an unfaithful husband, culminating in the act of forgiveness that brings poignancy to the “happy” ending. Mezzo soprano Sarah Nordin is terrific as Cherubino, whose emerging sexuality is seen by the count as a threat. Singing and acting with aplomb, she is delightfully convincing as the libidinous teenage boy.
They are skillfully abetted by soprano Giliana Norkunas, a more winning than usual Marcellina, and flexible bass-baritone Nicholas Kilkenny as Dr. Bartolo, her wily co-conspirator in the subplot to make her Figaro’s wife. The insinuating music teacher Don Basilio is vividly characterized by tenor Brian Ross Yeakley. Baritone Luke Scott is nicely understated as the drunken gardener Antonio. As his daughter Barbarina, Geneva’s own Mariami Bekauri, mezzo-soprano, is ardent and appealing.
The servants are well represented by the chorus: Emily Hughes, Natalia Hulse, Abigail Karnes, Renee Macdonald, Ardys Otterbacher, Llewellyn Lafford and Steve Maynard, directed by Steve Kane.
The recitative dialogues are sung in English. The rest of the text is sung in Italian, with supertitles in English, overseen by projectionist Meredith Beckley. The charming stage “pictures,” well-lit by Bruce Purdy, match the story’s 18th century time-frame and ethos.
The Marriage of Figaro has delighted and touched audiences for more than two centuries. The Smith now allows us to join this venerable tradition. It gives us the golden gift of enveloping ourselves, live, in the inexhaustible beauty of Mozart’s music.