Nearing the Aspen Finish Line, Mozart’s Figaro and McDuffie in Recital

United StatesUnited States Aspen Music Festival [9]: Aspen. (HS)13 August, Wheeler Opera House

MozartLe nozze di Figaro, soloists, members of the Aspen Opera Center / Jane Glover (conductor)


Director — Edward Berkeley
Scenic Design — John Kasarda
Costume Design — Brook Stanton
Lighting Design — Kate Ashton


Figaro — David Weigel
Susanna — Jessica Niles
Countess Almaviva — Avery Boettcher
Count Almaviva — Xiaomeng Zhang
Cherubino —  Megan Samarin
Basilio — Christopher Wolf
Marcellina — Kelly Birch
Bartolo — Le Bu
Don Curzio — Alex F. Gmeinder
Barbarina — Ru Huang
Antonio — Keith Klein

15 August, Harris Hall

Robert McDuffie (violin), Robert Spano (piano), Ensemble

Copland — ‘Hoedown’ from Rodeo; Appalachian Spring (Original Version)
Jay UngarAshokan Farewell
Gershwin/Heifetz — ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ from Porgy and Bess (Derek Wang, piano)
John Corigliano — Violin Sonata (Robert Spano, piano)

Aspen Opera Theater’s production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro can be counted a success, thanks in large part to splendid conducting by Jane Glover.

In the first of three performances in Wheeler Opera House, the cohesion between the pit and the all-student cast made the biggest impression, especially in Mozart’s glorious ensembles. The expansive finale to Act II — some of the greatest 20 minutes in all of opera — unfolded with a natural feel and superb balance in groups of two to eight singers.

Glover’s pace never flagged in that segment — or throughout the opera, for that matter. She knows this piece inside and out, and kept everyone on their toes both before and behind the footlights, pushing where comic and musical effect were needed and otherwise letting the pace flow.

Director Edward Berkeley fine-tuned plenty of meaningful moments between characters, and smoothly crafted the storytelling. Everything on stage seemed to be inspired by (or at least attuned to) the score, despite some wince-worthy glosses (mostly involving ill-advised dancing). The sets by John Kasarda, who also designed A Little Night Music earlier this summer, made clever use of the classic six doors of farce.

On the other hand, the pantomime during Glover’s fleet trip through the overture, with characters marching back and forth behind a partition, was totally unnecessary and distracting.

Although music sparkled, the only soloist who handled his arias flawlessly was Xiaomeng Zhang, a young  baritone from Wenzhou, China, studying at Juilliard. His frustration-venting aria in Act III, ‘Vedro mentr’io sospiro’, was a miracle of vocal focus and controlled fury, and every time he stepped into an ensemble, the effect rose two or three notches. His portrayal of Count Almaviva — who tries (and fails) to achieve an assignation with Susanna as she is about to marry his servant, Figaro — balanced poise against frustration.

Other characters almost universally crafted expressive recitatives, a big point in Glover’s many previous outings with Mozart operas here in Aspen. But the singers were more hit-and-miss in the parade of well-known arias.

As Zheng’s counterpart, soprano Avery Boettcher (who joins Michigan Opera’s resident artist program this year) infused the Countess’s two big arias — ‘Porgi amor’ and ‘Dove sono’ — with more spinto than lyric color, and couldn’t quite find enough creaminess in her gorgeous melody of forgiveness to draw the expected tears. As Figaro’s betrothed, soprano Jessica Niles, made an appealing Susanna. She spun out ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ with sustained tone, and made the Act III duet with Boettcher, ‘Canzonette sull’aria,’ come to life.

Bass-baritone David Weigel invested Figaro’s character with more bluster than wile, but he also made a believably bewildered protagonist. He’s a head-and-a-half taller than Niles, and the staging made clever use of that size difference. Although his Act I arias never quite took off, he got a lot of juice from the Act IV rant, ‘Aprite un po’quegli occhi’, warning men to beware of clever women.

Megan Samarin laid on thickly Cherubino’s horniness and fey charm, and applied a sleek mezzo-soprano to the famous Act II ‘Voi, che sapete’.

Among the supporting cast the standout was mezzo-soprano Kelly Birch — a resident artist at Kansas City Opera — as the spinster Marcellina. Her stature, sure approach to intonation and tone, and attention to little details paid off every time she opened her mouth. Christopher Wolf employed a clear high tenor to the wily Basilio, Figaro’s nemesis.

This season’s festival theme (‘Being American’) has led to some highlights, even if most of the programs honored the idea with a token nod, but not Robert McDuffie. American music is mothers milk for this violinist. In past seasons he has delivered memorable concertos by Barber and Schuman, and Glass’s American Four Seasons, so hopes were high for his all-American recital in Harris Hall.

Copland’s own violin-and-piano version of the ‘Hoedown’ from his ballet Rodeo started things off in a different mode from the renowned violinist Augustin Hadelich, who played it as an encore at his recital a week earlier. But Hadelich made it into a fast-paced, dazzling showpiece, and McDuffie gave it a distinctly American swagger. Settling into a less frenetic tempo, he relished the rhythms, as if to say, ‘This…this is American’.

He gave Jay Ungar’s bittersweet tune Ashokan Farewell his trademark lyrical touch and followed with Jascha Heifitz’s violin-and-piano arrangement of ‘It Ain’t Necessarily So’ from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess, which delivered all the swing and flavor of Cab Calloway (if he were a violin).

Throughout, pianist Derek Wang swung right along with him. Music director Robert Spano assumed the pianist’s role for John Corigliano’s Violin Sonata, an early piece (1964) written before he reached the top tier of today’s composers. Jagged and impulsive, there was plenty to chew on, but it was a mouthful that didn’t quite coalesce as well as the composer’s later works. Spano also didn’t quite match McDuffie’s deftness of rhythm.

The second half was devoted to Appalachian Spring, in Copland’s original chamber ensemble version. It wasn’t flawless, but with McDuffie and Wang as anchors the student musicians made it heartfelt and moving.

Harvey Steiman

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