Curtis’s Figaro a Mixed Bag Dramatically but an Almost Unmixed Triumph Musically

United StatesUnited States Mozart Le nozze di Figaro: Curtis Opera Theatre, soloists, Karina Canellakis (conductor), Jordan Fein (director), Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Philadelphia, 8.5.2016 (BJ)

Scenic Designer: Laura Jellinek
Costume Designer: Tilly Grimes
Lighting Designer: Eric Southern
Harpsichord: Lisa Keller

Figaro: Tyler Zimmerman
Susanna: Elena Perroni
Bartolo: Vartan Gabrielian
Marcellina: Sophia Fiuza Hunt
Cherubino: Anastasiia Sidorova
Count Almaviva: Johnathan McCullough
Basilio: Jamez McCorkle
Countess Almaviva: Heather Stebbins
Antonio: Kodi Meyer
Don Curzio: Jamez McCorkle
Barbarina: Emily Pogorelc
Chorus: Dennis Chmelensky, Patrick Wilhelm

As is often the case in the opera house these days, the artistic disparity between musical and dramatic realization was glaringly apparent from the start of this production.

Mozart’s overture received a performance of fetching charm and sparkle under the direction of Karina Canellakis, who is clearly a young talent to watch. But the director, Jordan Fein, had conceived the notion of bringing all the characters on to stand glumly in a line looking off toward stage left, regrettably distracting attention from the wonderful music we were hearing.

Once all but two of them had beaten a successful retreat at the end of the overture, Figaro and Susanna burst back on stage, the former eagerly tearing off his outer garments (revealing a particularly unattractive pair of boxer shorts) for a quick snogging session with his fiancée. Again as usual, updating the action and dressing the characters in more or less modern clothes has an effect precisely opposite to what is intended by such stratagems. Instead of bringing a more universal relevance to the story, it inevitably makes any reasonably aware audience member think about period: whereas in the time of Mozart, Da Ponte, and Beaumarchais being discovered with a man you were not married to in your company would quite reasonably have filled any respectable woman with a sense of disaster, in the setting of our own day such a reaction to the situation as Susanna’s, and later the Countess’s, is bound to seem absurdly overblown.

In itself, Laura Jellinek’s scenic design was admirably uncluttered and efficient. There was just a door and one chair (of which more later), and such challenges as how to hide Cherubino and the Count first from each other and then from Basilio, in the hilarious scene where all three in their different ways persecute Susanna, were solved by the use of a curtain hung across two thirds of the stage.

A few minor details aside, the actual deployment and interplay of characters on stage was mostly well managed, with the help of perceptive performances by most of the May 8 cast. There was one slight absurdity, when Barbarina—the excellent Emily Pogorelc—introduced “these girls” who were coming to praise the Countess, but there was only one besides her: Cherubino disguised in female attire. Surely, with all the resources of Curtis’s vocal studies program, it should have been possible to find just a couple of other students to make sense of the moment? And having the strikingly attractive, far short of middle age, and vocally polished Sophia Fiuza Hunt as your Marcellina similarly made nonsense of the Count’s thoughts of marrying Figaro off to “the old woman.”

What nevertheless, before anything else, made the drama convincing was the quality of the two central principals. Tyler Zimmerman played Figaro, not in the usual style of an inveterate intriguer, but as a regular guy, trying to cope with each new problem as it arose, and the portrayal was both sympathetic and dramatically apt. He also sang splendidly, with firmly focused tone and—as with most members of the cast—fine Italian diction that evidenced Corradina Caporello’s skillful coaching. And Elena Perroni, equally gifted vocally, was an utterly adorable Susanna. Amusing use, by the way, was made of her diminutive stature, when in the dressing-up scene in the Countess’s boudoir she told Cherubino, “We’re both the same height,” and then jumped up as high as she could to substantiate the remark.

Along with an appropriately lecherous but still dignified Count in Johnathan McCullough, the rest of the cast mostly provided strong support both musically and dramatically. Vartan Gabrielian was an authoritative Bartolo, James McCorkle a suitably sly Basilio, and Kodi Meyer a no less suitably rustic Antonio. In the always tricky role of the Countess, Heather Stebbins acted with conviction; her singing was a tad shrill above a soft dynamic level, but in piano it took on considerable charm, so that her “Canzonetta sull’aria” duet with Susanna justly emerged as one of the most magical numbers in the score. The only relatively weak link, perhaps through no fault of her own, was the Cherubino. Anastasiia Sidorova has an attractive mezzo-soprano voice, and it may well have been because the director compelled her to sing much of “Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio” lying flat on her back that, even when she had returned to the vertical, she sang frequently out of tune. But also, in that aria, which shows us a young man potentially seductive but totally confused and totally unsure of himself, her gestures all suggested the quite opposite effect of macho self-confidence.

Now, about that chair: for nearly three of the opera’s four acts, whatever his other peccadillos, Jordan Fein seemed to have successfully resisted that tired cliché of present-day opera direction, the standing-on-chairs syndrome. But once presented with a table and ten chairs for the wedding banquet, he could resist temptation no longer, and we were treated, if that is the right word, to a positive jamboree of chair-standing, and even to the spectacle of Figaro singing “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” standing on the table. Still, the use of the table and chairs to show much of the Acts 3 and 4 action in a kind of freeze-frame manner, characters not immediately involved in it remaining seated motionless while their colleagues went about their dramatic business, struck me as an ingenious and convincing device.

Peter Burwasser’s perceptive program note was a pleasure to read. And my final word of praise must go the conductor. New York City native Karina Canellakis is the winner of this year’s Sir Georg Solti Conducting Award, and (despite a few inconsequential cuts mostly occasioned by the exigencies of the venue and the absence of a real chorus) her shaping of what is for me the greatest opera ever written showed why. With a stick technique that looks exceptionally clear and graceful, she drew superb playing from the orchestra, and—except for a tempo so brisk in “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” that robbed the horns, for all their accuracy, of time to speak effectively—her pacing of the score and the sensitivity of her phrasing were consistently compelling.

Bernard Jacobson

Leave a Comment