Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Marriage of Figaro at the Vancouver Playhouse

The Vancouver Opera has just wrapped up its inaugural festival format--in which it has moved its operations from a full season of stand-alone productions spread out over the course of a calendar year to a two and a half week festival incorporating three works in repertory and a number of parallel concerts, talks, installations, and related events. Richard and I finally got to see one of the main stage productions yesterday afternoon when we attended one of the final performances of The Marriage of Figaro, which was playing at the Vancouver Playhouse.

I have to say that this production, following upon the PuSh Festival's very successful presentation of Third World Bunfight's version of Verdi's Macbeth, has confirmed that the Playhouse is now my preferred venue to see opera in the city. The intimacy of the space makes the music and singing feel at once warmer and fuller, and the action just generally more alive. Additionally, given that Mozart's score (which is closer to chamber opera than the grand 19th-century romantic works of Verdi) calls for the recitative parts of the libretto to be sung to a harpsichord, being that much closer to the orchestra means that every note feels that much more resonant.

Of course proximity also means that the design of your production needs to hold up to thorough visual scrutiny. Happily on that front this version exceeds expectations. Director Rachel Peake has opted for a modern-dress take on the comic plot, but one that allows for a few historical anachronisms. As such, Drew Facey's gorgeous set--which morphs over the course of the opera's four acts from the interior of servant Susanna's chambers to those of her mistress, Countess Almaviva, to the grand hall and finally the exterior gardens of the estate--references 18th-century neoclassicism in its pediments and brocaded walls, but it is also sleekly and unfussily modern, with minimal furnishings and, most arrestingly, a mirrored floor for the interior scenes. The costumes, by hot young Albertan designer Sid Neigum, alternate between finely tailored monochromes for the lovers Susanna and Figaro to riotous patterns for the buffon characters of Cherubino and Barbarina, and from the plainly utilitarian (the quasi-military fatigues worn by the Count) to the overly decorative (the hooped dress worn by the Countess in Act 3). All of this is beautifully lit by lighting designer John Webber.

The performances were also uniformly excellent. The new paradigm in opera these days is for singers, no matter how fine the voice, to also be actors, and Peake draws fine comic texture--and timing--from the entire cast. Because this is opera buffa, most of the characters are broad and recognizable types; nevertheless, for us to be seduced by the sentiment of the arias, not to mention accept the implausibility of the plot, we have to believe the Countess' pain and the see-saw outrage of Figaro and Susanna at each other's apparent infidelity. On this front, the characters' various asides--a key part of the myriad stratagems and deceptions and counterplots set in motion in this opera--are especially well handled, not least in the opening act's catfight between Susanna and Marcellina, the latter seeking Figaro as her own boy-toy, only to have it revealed in Act 3 that she is his long-lost mother!

For me, the women in this production outshone the men in terms of overall vocal quality. Caitlin Wood as Susanna, Leslie Ann Bradley as Countess Almaviva, and the wonderful Mireille Lebel as a willowy and physically elastic Cherubino were special standouts. Among the men I was most captivated by Phillip Addis as Count Almaviva, both in terms of singing and acting. Alex Lawrence was suitably dashing as our put-upon hero, Figaro, but he had some trouble with breath in his lower register (which, to be sure, is pretty low given that Figaro is written as a baritone and not a tenor), and there were a few cracks in the upper register as well. But these are minor quibbles and the entire cast and crew are to be commended for this spirited and refreshed take on a classic from the operatic repertoire.


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