Philadelphia’s vocal academy rises movingly to the challenge of Figaro

United StatesUnited States Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Chorus, and AVA Opera Orchestra / Cristofer Macatsoris (conductor), Helen Corning Warden Theater, Academy of the Vocal Arts, Philadelphia, 19.11.2019. (BJ)

Kara Mulder as Countess Almaviva (c) Paul Sirochman

Director – David Gately
Producer – K. James McDowell
Set designer – Peter Harrison
Lighting designer/Set construction – Allen J. Doak, Jr.
Costume and Wig designer – Val J. Starr
Make-Up – Natalie Kidd 

Figaro – Brent Michael Smith
Susanna – Aubrey Ballarò
Bartolo – Copdy Müller
Marcellina – Chelsea Laggan
Cherubino – Pascale Spinney
Count Almaviva – Timothy Murray
Basilio – Zachary Rioux
Countess Almaviva – Kara Mulder
Don Curzio – Sahel Salam
Barbarina – Emily Margevich
Antonio – Griffen Hogan Tracy

It is too rarely, in these days of self-advertisingly outlandish directorial ‘ideas’, that we can hope to encounter a musically excellent opera performance in which what we hear is supported rather than undermined by what we see happening on stage. But that rarity, I am happy to relate, is what Philadelphia’s Academy of Vocal Arts achieved in this production of what ranks, for me, as the greatest opera ever written.

On Peter Harrison’s adaptable set, director David Gately deployed his cast skillfully. It was possible to be bothered by a couple of minor miscalculations: a lustrous chestnut-brown wig made Bartolo look like one of the youngest characters in the cast, and I could have done with rather less in the way of stage business centered around Cherubino. But the shifting relations among the principals were vividly realized, and the story’s challenging comic touches were carried off as deftly and clearly as its at least equally important explorations of profound human interaction.

Musically, meanwhile, hair-trigger articulation from the strings, sumptuous contributions from woodwinds and brass, and characteristically crisp volleys from timpanist Martha Hitchins made it clear from the very beginning that the account of the score under Cristofer Macatsoris’s baton was to be at once instrumentally assured, sensibly paced, lucidly balanced, and appropriately wide-ranging in dynamics, though I regretted a few cuts, one or two more consequential than others.

What completed the pleasures of the evening was a standard of singing by soloists and chorus alike that amply justified the 85-years-old school’s reputation as a pre-eminent training ground for rising opera stars. There was not one weak link in the cast. Brent Michael Smith and Aubrey Ballarò made a vocally fluent and convincingly devoted pair of lovers, the former suitably mercurial, the latter offering a perfectly ravishing ‘Deh vieni, non tardar’ in the last act. The Count delivered his frequently demanding part with panache. The creators of the work made life hard for the singer portraying the Countess by obliging her to kick her heals idly for the first hour of the performance, so that her eventual appearance at the start of Act II often suffers from a degree of nervous insecurity, but there was no trace of that in Kara Mulder’s rich-toned and dramatically nuanced singing. Her teamwork throughout with Susanna produced many musical and human frissons, and their voices blended beautifully in the charming letter duet.

Bartolo, Marcellina, Cherubino, and the less central characters kept up these high vocal and dramatic standards. And when the final denouement came, the Count falling to his knees to beg his wife’s forgiveness, you could have heard a pin drop in the packed 130-seat house. I once, believe it or not, witnessed a production of the opera in which this sublime moment drew inexplicable laughter from some members of the audience. But the ten or fifteen minutes thus begun constitute one of the most wonderful things in all of Mozart — forget the Masses, the Litany settings, and even the Requiem: this is truly the greatest sacred music he ever wrote — and its presentation on this occasion, utterly straightforward and sung with unmistakable sincerity, came as a benison.

Bernard Jacobson

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