UM Opera “Figaro” Closes on a High Note! — But Why Should We Care?

One of the top music schools in the country, the UM School of Music, Theater, and Dance (SMTD) served up two weekend specials of virtuosic musicianship – seasoned with clever scenery and drizzled in imaginative lighting. The Lydia Mendelssohn Theater was packed on Sunday’s valedictory performance of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” and was a reminder of opera’s continued relevance today. From silver-haired foxes to adolescent girls, bedecked in ball gowns and glowing faces, this afternoon of opera was appealing to the whole gamut of social classes and ages – and the musicians did not disappoint! From the moment Conductor Martin Katz’s baton fell, the woodwinds scampered into altitude. Flurries of energy from the bassoons and strings gave way to a symphonic boom; the actors, jumping head-first into the jet stream, carried the audience on an unforgettable ride. However, in an age where so many entertainment sources compete for our attention, why should we go see an opera instead of sitting and vegging out on Youtube or Netflix?

For starters, a performance of “Figaro,” while perhaps the hottest ticket you can get in opera, is about more than Mozart’s genius and majesty. “[It’s about] the importance of forgiveness,” says Martin Katz, music director of his 27th opera – including 24 at UM – and “the right of the servant class to have rights.” Like Rocky II or Star Wars Episode 7, “Figaro” burst onto the scene in the 18th century as a sequel to the popular “Barber of Seville.”

The plot centers around Susanna, the Countess’ servant, played by Soprano Meredith Kelly, who is set to marry Figaro (Justin Burgess, Baritone), whom the Count has appointed as head of the servant staff. The Count, an unrepentant skirt-chaser (Baritone John Daugherty) seeks to capitalize on his right to bed his servant girl on the night of her wedding. This doesn’t sit well with Figaro, who hatches a plan in cahoots with Susanna and the Countess – herself a love-starved aristocrat played by Soprano Allison Prost – to foil his schemes. These hijinks even entangle Cherubino – a teen boy in heat played by Mezzo Soprano Isa Signoret – into schemes that involve him dressing in drag. In the end, the Count repents for his bawdy behavior, is forgiven, and finds renewed romance with his Countess. With each moment, the cast’s evocative artistry gave the drama an unrelenting kinetic force.  

Much like the rest of her cast, she put in the hard work and got well-deserved praise. Where, though, would these deserving performers be without incredible staging?

The singers were dominant. Kelly’s Susanna was a cunning little vixen, coquettishly prowling across the stage before capturing our imaginations and seizing our hearts in “Deh Vienni Non Tardar (Oh, Come, Don’t Be Late),” with satin tones and scintillating lyricism. In turn, Justin Burgess’ lusty portrayal of Figaro kept the audience on the edge of their seats with his vigorous acting and promising young voice. Then there was John Daugherty’s Count – with a robust and imposing frame, seething with machismo, he elicited raucous applause as the power and conviction of his resonant arias and stagecraft left the audience spellbound. One could not, at the same time, neglect Ms. Signoret’s virile Cherubino, whose angsty anthem “Voi Che Sapete (You, Who Know What Love Is),” delivered like a teen magazine confessional, but in Signoret’s peerless Italian with a hearty, biting sonority throughout every passage her musicality graced. So convincing was her portrayal, one could be forgiven for thinking her a real lad. While all these were magnificent, the loudest applause of the afternoon belonged to Allison Prost’s Countess, who ruled the stage imperially with her peerless poise, heart-tugging phrasing, and magnetic legato – this combined with her artisan stagecraft made her a force to be reckoned with. She struck the likeness of Queen Victoria upon her throne as the audience roared insatiably at the conclusion of her captivating “Dove Sono (Where Are the Beautiful Moments).”

In case anyone thinks preparing an operatic role is as easy as “Do, Re, Mi,” Ms. Prost takes us on a behind-the-scenes look into her preparation process:

“The first step I took to prepare all of the new music was to translate the text; I hand-wrote a word-for-word translation in my score…I made sure I could comfortably speak the conversational Italian (and understand what I was saying) before adding any pitches…this process had to be completed before the semester even began, [since] we began coaching with the music staff on the first day of school–January 3rd. Throughout the 6 weeks of music rehearsals and 4 weeks of staging, I was able to develop the Countess as a living, breathing person who is not much unlike myself.” Hard as it is to imagine, Ms. Prost described how she even had to perform while singing in a corset!

Much like the rest of her cast, she put in the hard work and got well-deserved praise. Where, though, would these deserving performers be without incredible staging?

To say UM was privileged to have Grant Preisser at the helm of this opera is an understatement: he put on perhaps the best staged production of the SMTD calendar. The energy on stage was like a Musical Theater production,  and he had the actors constantly moving on stage with barely a dull moment. One exception was a yawning gap in Act III when the Count paced somewhat aimlessly downstage of corny, box-stepping partner dancers. Preisser can’t be faulted for not being a choreographer, though, when he excels at so many other things. With great facility from his past work furnishing sets, he designed rotating scenery, splashed with sunset hues and occasional off-green colors. These created for the audience the illusion of the passage of time. The actors, too, clearly knew both what they were singing and what others were singing to them, and their gestures showed it; even though the finger wagging “naughty-naughty gestures,” whenever characters were intrigued or plotting something, was verging on the annoying.

“Opera,” says John Daugherty, who will soon be graduating with his Doctorate in Musical Arts (DMA), is “just like anything else in the world: there’s really good rock-n-roll, and there’s really bad rock-n-roll…[but] unlike some other things, if opera isn’t done well, it’s agonizing to have to sit through.”

Since the buck always stops with the director, we can’t ignore little mistakes on the supertitles that pull us out of the action, like “piece of mind,” instead of, “peace of mind.” Still, these are minor criticisms – the whole of the work was a 2-D pop-up book of seamless scene transitions and constant, energized movement. These assets were almost upstaged by unexpected flourishes like Bartolo (the villain third-party candidate trying to dupe both Count and Countess) and his X-Men-like wolverine claws, or the judge, Don Curzio’s exit off stage as he guzzled hard liquor. In either case, the audience was shocked and awed. The SMTD should be begging for Preisser’s speedy return on the job to see what he can do next!

As the opera concluded, it was easy to draw the connections between the problems “Figaro” addressed, and how contemporary those issues remain today.  In the same spirit as our 21st century“social justice” movements, the opera features a melee of class-warfare between the rights of the servant-class and those of the aristocracy. In its tale of vengeance against the Count for his licentiousness, “Figaro,” also smacks of the “#MeToo,” movement, while demonstrating a reconciliation at the end which modern society still hasn’t achieved. Last, when Cherubino — a “pants-role” written by Mozart for a woman to portray a teen boy — dresses in drag, he therefore takes on the paradox of a woman playing a teen boy, playing a woman – a delightful and layered exploration of fluid gender roles not unlike those explored in 2018.

“Okay,” you may be thinking, “so opera still tackles today’s relevant issues, but why choose opera over other entertainment?” As Bob Dylan might say, “the answer, my friends, is blowin’ in the wind,” or, at least, in the woodwinds and vocal chords.

Returning at last to the question of whether Opera holds up to other forms of entertainment: undeniably, it’s about the performance. “Opera,” says John Daugherty, who will soon be graduating with his Doctorate in Musical Arts (DMA), is “just like anything else in the world: there’s really good rock-n-roll, and there’s really bad rock-n-roll…[but] unlike some other things, if opera isn’t done well, it’s agonizing to have to sit through.” The comparison is apt: pubs are rife with kids head-banging to mediocre guitar shredding and wannabes trying their luck at karaoke, but the first mention of opera elicits images of a rotund woman in a Viking helmet and pitchfork screaming her lungs out. This cartoonish stereotype, no doubt the brainchild of WW II-era Looney Tunes satire, does not often reflect reality. Nor is opera the province of the elderly – an opera ticket belongs in an old lady’s handbag just as much as it belongs in a scan from your iPhone, giving you something neither Youtube nor Netflix can provide. Anyone in the Lydia Mendelssohn Theater last week for “Figaro,” could easily see, and hear, how true this is.

*Don’t miss the University Opera Theater’s next production in Fall 2018, the Operetta “Candide,” directed by Matthew Ozawa with music by Leonard Bernstein.

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