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BWW Review: On Site Opera's FIGARO a Charming Diversion that's Not Mozart

Figaro (Jesse Blumberg) and Susanna (Jeni Houser)
test out their wedding bed. Photo: Pavel Antonov

"Bride's side or groom's? I'm Count Almaviva," said the elegant actor as we entered what, we are told, is the Count's summer palace. "Bride's side or groom's?" said the seductive brunette in a bath towel, stepping out of the tub. She introduced herself as the Countess, Rosina. Upstairs, downstairs, in my lady's chamber (and the atrium), we are cordially invited to the world of THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO--the name of the event as well as the opera--joining the Jack of all trades and the lovely Susanna, compliments of the ever-creative On Site Opera.

It was a charming production, amazing in detail, as well as disarmingly acted and beautifully sung, and the audience of 50 or so got to see the amusing shenanigans, both comic and sexual, up close and personal at the 632 Hudson townhouse venue in New York's West Village. (What a treat!) Cameron Anderson was space consultant and prop designer, lighting by Shawn Kaufman, with costumes by Haley Lieberman and hair/makeup by Gabrielle Vincent.

The only hitch was a pretty big one: The piece wasn't Mozart's but one by Marcos Portugal, a busy composer in his day, around 1800, but not exactly a common name for the ages.

This is the second part of On Site's trilogy of less familiar operas based on Pierre Beaumarchais' trilogy of plays, after last year's IL BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA by Paisiello; that one came earlier than Rossini's and was delightful in its way, but was certainly no match for its more famous fraternal twin.

This time around, we have a composer dealing with a play that had already been made into an opera--as LE NOZZE DI FIGARO with libretto and music by Mozart/daPonte, no less--13 years earlier. Portugal stuck closer to the title of Beaumarchais' original play, LA PAZZA GIORNATA, OVVERO LE MATRIMONIO DI FIGARO--and all he had to do was figure out how to distinguish his work from an existing masterpiece based on the same source. Ay, there's the rub.

While it's great to be introduced to a virtually unknown piece--this was a Western Hemisphere premiere according to Eric Einhorn, the director, who filled the production with funny and insightful details--it's hard to do such a familiar story without being drawn into comparison with its better known work. This is the musical "bizarro" world of Beaumarchais that revolves around the clever Figaro--not exactly offering opposite expectations but perhaps less felicitous ones.

Whether Portugal was trying to avoid comparison by not placing arias in the same places as his better-known predecessor--the story in Gaetano Rossi's libretto was pretty much the same as daPonte's, done here in an easily flowing translation by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray, adapted by Joan Holden--I couldn't say. But if he did, it was like trying to stop a speeding train with a feather pillow: basically impossible.

This was an abbreviated version of the score--cut down to two hours, with spoken dialogue replacing Rossi's recitatives (most clearly missing in Act I)--and while I don't know for sure, I believe it would be safe to assume that no musicals gems were thrown out with the bathwater.

What's missing from this FIGARO that makes the Mozart version such a gem? Here the litany begins: A Countess without "Dove sono" and "Porgi amor"? The Count's "Vedro mentr'io sospiro"? A Figaro without "Se vuol ballar"? Susanna without "Deh vieni, non tardar"? Cherubino's "Voi che sapete"? Even in the recognition scene, with Figaro uncovered as the love child of Marcellina and Bartolo, I missed the 'sua madre...suo padre" from the amazed Susanna.

But it's not simply that Mozart's masterworks are missing; for the most part Portugal seemed loath to substitute his own takes on the arias or situations. This was a pity, because the cast seemed vocally ready for much more than the composer produced for them to do.

Nevertheless, it was great to be up close to the action and the voices of the attractive singers. The cast's couples were well matched. Even though the lovely soprano Jeni Houser had been a late replacement for Susanna, she did well, notably in a lovely piece at the end of the wedding scene. Baritone Jesse Blumberg, as Figaro, was a thoroughly charismatic presence every time he appeared, though I wished to hear more from him.

Perhaps Portugal's biggest contribution was changing the Count to a tenor--in Mozart, the role frequently sounds too close to Figaro--and the production was lucky to have the appealing tenor David Blaylock to fill the bill (he was last year's Figaro in the Paisiello), with his one aria in Act IV. The Countess, well acted and sung in the ensembles, was the velvety-voiced Rosina of Camille Zamora, who unfortunately was left without a solo of her own in this version. The scene-stealer, as in Mozart (only this time a soprano), was the pants role of the hormonal page Cherubino, sung by the lively Melissa Wimbish, with another of the opera's better arias.

As Marcellina and Bartolo--who go from the piece's villains to the loving parents of Figaro--mezzo Margaret Lattimore and bass-baritone David Langan sounded good and added much to the merriment. Rounding out the cast were the sonorous bass-baritone Antoine Hodge as Antonio, the suave bass-baritone Ryan Kuster as Basilio and soprano Ginny Weant as Cecchina.

Bravo to Music Director Geoffrey McDonald and the lively instrumental ensemble, which brought it all together. (I particularly liked the cello solo from Ali Jones in the wedding scene.)

Next year, the troupe takes on the final part of the Beaumarchais trilogy, LA MERE COUPABLE (THE GUILTY MOTHER), a more contemporary work, from 1966, by Darius Milhaud (libretto by Madeleine Milhaud). It'll be interesting to be able to go in with totally fresh ears--with no music by Rossini or Mozart to compete with. In the meantime, for something completely different, On Site is doing a double bill of monodramas at the Harmonie Club on September 29-30: Dominick Argento's MISS HAVISHAM'S WEDDING NIGHT and Berlioz' LA MORT DE CLEOPATRE.

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From This Author Richard Sasanow