Substance beats style in ‘Figaro’

Substance beats style in ‘Figaro’
By Rob Lowman, Entertainment Editor

Redlands Daily Facts, CA
May 26 2004

THE LIST OF timeless artworks may not be growing these days, but
no matter. We already have enough to engage us. Or so listening to
Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro’ suggested on Saturday night.

The occasion was opening night of a new Los Angeles Opera production
of the work. Directed by Ian Judge and designed by Tim Goodchild, it
takes the place of Peter Hall’s version, which was both well-liked and
straightforward, albeit a bit unspontaneous after several revivals. But
the exchange has not worked in our favor.

No, playwright Beaumarchais’ savvy barber-cum-valet and his bride-to-be
don’t now work for modern American plutocrats (see Peter Sellars),
nor do they reside in a pile reminiscent of Poe’s House of Usher
(see Jonathan Miller).

There is, though, something decidedly Eurotrashy about Goodchild’s
outsized palace rooms, with their super-rich colors and anachronistic
modern-day accouterments, like telephones and glossy magazines. And
one can’t ignore Deirdre Clancy’s bizarrely matched costumes, each
seemingly plucked from a different theatrical road company. Why, you
may ask, are the count’s soldiers dressed like chauffeurs, circa 1920?

More serious are the lapses Judge makes regarding 18th-century
manners. Seeing Figaro kiss the hand of his master’s wife, to say
nothing of watching the page Cherubino smooch with her, subverts what
Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte intended. Without class
boundaries, Figaro and his cohorts risk nothing — and sacrifice is
central to this opera.

Still, one goes to “Figaro’ primarily for the music, not the visuals,
or even always the morals. And musically this production is strong.
Though no one in the cast is famous, several singers no doubt will
be. Topping the list is Figaro himself as personified by Uruguayan
bass-baritone Erwin Schrott.

Schrott won great acclaim here last season as a sexily resonant Don
Giovanni. And it’s no surprise that the company signed him to this
role. To be convincing, Figaro must be clever and charming. It’s no
bad thing if he’s a lady-killer, too. And Schrott certainly is that.
He swaggers across the stage with enviable self-confidence. How
nice that he has a voice to match — deep and robust, but with a
captivating, bright edge.

This vigorous Figaro is paired with a Susanna of commensurate gifts,
soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, a Canadian born to Armenian parents in
Beirut. Though making her L.A. Opera debut with this role, Bayrakdarian
already has appeared at two company galas and won Placido Domingo’s
Operalia competition in 2000. Pretty and vivacious, she looks like an
ideal Susanna; more important, she sings like one, with a glimmering,
even tone. Her wise and cheeky performance proved a joy from beginning
to end, but never more so than in her final aria, when she was also
ineffably touching.

Susanna’s noble counterpart, the Countess, is sung by Bulgarian soprano
Darina Takova. If Bayrakdarian sounds like topaz, then Takova’s voice
is amber. In the Countess’ two great arias — “Porgi amor,’ about
love lost, and “Dove sono,’ about its possible reclamation — Takova
sang ardently, though she got more expressive as the opera progressed.

American bass David Pittsinger’s Count Almaviva, no slouch himself
in the testosterone department, rounds out the central quartet. His
gripping account of the great vengeance aria “Vedro mentr’io sospiro’
seethed with wounded pride, and he made a convincing foil for Figaro
at every turn.

With two beloved arias, the trouser role of Cherubino has always
been plum for mezzo-sopranos, and Boston native Sandra Piques Eddy
assumes it enthusiastically, singing well and offering a particularly
convincing portrait of a young man on hormonal red alert. No less
fine were Anna Steiger as a robustly scheming Marcellina and company
regulars Michael Gallup, as blustering but somehow amiable Dr.
Bartolo, and Greg Fedderly, as an unctuous, stuttering Don Basilio.

In the pit, Stefan Anton Reck, in his company debut, made a fine
first impression, leading Mozart’s effervescent score with ample
enthusiasm and enough sensitivity to avoid overpowering the singers,
which his broad gestures certainly suggested he might do.!end!