Princeton Festival Opens Opera Season With A Spirited Mozart Production
There is a line in the movie Amadeus, spoken by the Austrian Emperor, that the music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart has “too many notes.” One could easily apply this comment to Mozart’s 1786 opera Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro); with four acts filled with recitative and arias, Figaro is one of the most multi-layered operas in the repertory. Princeton Festival presented this operatic powerhouse this past weekend at McCarter Theatre Centre, leaving the audience wanting more of those “too many notes.”
Le Nozze di Figaro was revolutionary in its time for a variety of reasons. Operas up to the mid-18th century had focused primarily on safe heroic subjects, and in many cases were vehicles for singers to show off their virtuosic abilities. For Figaro, Mozart took on the controversial Beaumarchais play of the same name, which dismantled well-established class lines to create a comedic drama between servants and the aristocracy. Figaro was musically revolutionary in its emphasis on the ensemble, rather than the solo singers, and in its continuous forward movement with the music. Having a number of “hit” tunes in its score also did not hurt in achieving world-wide popularity.
Princeton Festival selected Figaro as its main stage opera for the month-long festival, with opening night last Saturday night at McCarter Theatre Centre’s Matthews Theatre. Festival Artistic Director Richard Tang Yuk assembled a cast with solid national and international credits, and all had the complex and intricate opera well in hand.
The music of Mozart is deceptive. The lyrical melodies and rolling accompaniments look easy on the page, but the expressiveness and musical grace required are not for all singers. One singer in the Princeton Festival production who consistently aimed for Mozartean elegance and style was soprano Haeran Hong, who sang the role of Susanna. Ms. Hong was a sparkling voice from the outset, perfectly in time with the orchestra and even through the vocal registers. Her ariatic high point, and perhaps that of the entire opera, was her Act IV aria “Deh vieni, non tardar,” cleanly sung with refinement and plenty of time with the long lines.
Ms. Hong’s voice was particularly well suited to sing with soprano Katherine Whyte as the Countess, and their “Letter Duet” was full of Viennese sweetness. Ms. Whyte, although an edgier voice and character than other “Countesses,” brought out particular drama in her Act III aria “Dove sono,” and found a great deal of expressiveness in “Porgi amor,” which opens the second act.
The male counterparts to these two strong women were equally in control of their roles. Baritone Jonathan Lasch sang the role of Figaro with resonance and wit, especially in the Act I aria “Se vuol ballare,” and his vocal soliloquy in Act IV, warning the audience against the underhandedness of women was very appealing. Baritone Sean Anderson was imposing from the start as the Count, physically towering over other characters and convincingly making his point with commanding drama.
Pants roles were common in 18th-century operas, initially sung by castrati and later sung by women. The role of the page Cherubino was one of these roles, sung in this production by mezzo-soprano Cassandra Zoé Velasco. Ms. Velasco easily captured the adolescent yearning of the part, singing with quick and light coloratura, especially in the Act I aria “Non so più cosa son,” accompanied by light winds. The role of the gardener’s daughter Barbarina is small, but soprano Jessica Beebe sang it effectively as a saucy spitfire sashaying her way to accomplish her devious agendas. The Princeton Festival cast was filled out by solid singers, including Kathryn Krasovec as Marcellina, Ricardo Lugo as Bartolo, David Kellett as Don Basilio, Paul An as Antonio, and Vincent DiPeri as Don Curzio. A chorus well-trained by Robin Freeman added to the crispness of the ensemble scenes.
Figaro is a very long opera, and its length may have led to some of the breakneck tempi taken by Dr. Tang Yuk and the precise orchestra he had assembled, especially in the recitative sections. Recitative musically replicates spoken dialog, but the speed at which the recitatives were taken in Saturday’s production made it difficult to understand the conversational style. However as the opera went along, its innate lyricism emerged. The music was well enhanced by Peter Dean Beck’s set design and Norman Coates’s lighting design, and director Stephen LaCosse made excellent use of the stage with the singers. Despite Figaro’s length, the audience at Matthews Theatre was engaged until the last note, confirming that one cannot really argue with the music of Mozart.