New Jersey Opera Theater is Off and Running As a Summer Resident at McCarter Theatre
New Jersey Opera Theater took on a lot this summer in its move from a student to professional theater organization. The company presented five productions in a two-and-one-half week period, plus a myriad of master classes and discussions on musical, production, and performance topics. In its move to McCarter Theatre, the company wisely stayed off the main stage, performing instead in the Berlind Theatre, a delightful space with stadium seating, so there is no bad seat in the house.
The third production of NJOT opened on Thursday night, the New Jersey premiere of Jules Massenet's rarely heard Chérubin, a saucy 19th century sequel to Mozart's Marriage of Figaro (also in NJOT's repertory this summer). Chérubin continues the story of the page Cherubino, known from Mozart's opera as a personification of conflicting innocence and burgeoning adolescence. In Massenet's opera, Cherubino is all grown up, but the innocence is long gone when this Chérubin is around, you'll want to lock up your teenage daughters. Like Mozart's Cherubino, Chérubin is a pants role for mezzo-soprano, and Amanda Polychronis' portrayal of this Lothario was so real it was creepy. Ms. Polychronis had a swagger that immediately set Chérubin apart from the rest of the men, and like the later 19th century Fledermaus character Prince Orlofsky, this character knows exactly what he was doing in his quest of just about every woman that walked. Ms. Polychronis sang the role with confidence, self-assurance, and vocal accuracy and style.
One of the best results of the Opera Theater's activities this summer was the wide arrany of singers who appeared in the productions, including the ancillary cast of Chérubin. The opera is introduced by Le Philosophe, sung by Michael Anthony McGee, a solid bass with a nice lyric quality to his voice. Le Philosophe surrounded himself with two other animated singers Jeremy Bolin as Le Compte and Kyle Hastings as Le Baron, creating scenes in which it seemed the solution to every problem was to draw a sword.
The true object of Chérubin's affections was Nina, sung by Westminster Choir College graduate Paige Cutrona. Ms. Cutrona, like most of the other singers of the cast, was able to fill the hall well with a lyric soprano, very forward in tone but suitable for the French language. Her first act aria, accompanied by solo cello, was especially elegant. Nina competed for Chérubin's love with La Comtesse, sung by Valerie Kraft; and La Baronne, sung by Kristen Dubenion-Smith. There is a great deal of dialog in this opera, and all of the singers kept the plot moving along with well handled scenes of speech. Director Marc Verzatt staged the production to accentuate the humorous, aided by the supertitles.
L'Ensoleillad is the great Spanish dancer invited to join the opera's opening celebrations, and is another female whom Chérubin has his eye on. Elizabeth Rosenberg commanded the stage well, whether enticing or repelling Chérubin, with a solid soprano voice well suited to 19th century repertoire.
In the Berlind Theater, the orchestra sits at the foot of the stadium seating, at times a bit too close for the thick orchestration of the opera, despite the limited number of players. With the ensemble this close, one can hear every flaw (although these were few once the opera got going). Conductor Mark Flint kept players and ensemble together well, in music that evoked 19th century Paris. An animated chorus could have used a bit more precision in the men, but added to the music and drama sufficiently.
Among the most impressive aspects of the production were the sets, designed by Hannah Price, combined with the lighting as designed by Barry Steele. Based on hues of blues and tans, the lighting and set together created a space which did not detract from the performers. NJOT spared no expense in costumes, and designer Marie Miller offered a wide variety of 19th century ensemble outfits for the characters.
New Jersey Opera Theater took a huge risk in moving to a significant venue and presenting as many events as the company did this past summer. The audience for Chérubin was a near full house, and from all appearances, their other productions also drew well. Many singers were involved in these productions, giving these performers summer employment and opportunities for new roles, both of which are critical. NJOT seems to be settling on a winter season of one production and a full array of summer activities, which would suit the audiences at Berlind Theater just fine.