Hitting the High Notes
One of the greatest challenges in opera is to sing and act with equal agility. Mastering one of these art forms is difficult enough; since opera's early days, multitalented singers like Maria Callas have been rare. Mozart's quintessential opera, The Marriage of Figaro, adds yet another hurdle: Its performers must be able to sing, act and pull off comedy (often not an easy task for a dramatic actor). Full of plot twists and ruses, Figaro is packed with all the zany conventions of Renaissance comedy -- from romantic intrigue to mistaken identity.
Underlying Figaro's playful tug-of-war between the sexes are harmonically complex ensemble numbers and recitative, a type of fast-paced dialogue set to a harpsichord melody that advances the story line. In operas by Mozart, both ensemble and recitative require vocalists who can do more than simply create beautiful notes.
Until recently, staging Figaro would have been unheard of for Opera in the Heights, the small-budgeted troupe that mounts four shows a year in a tiny theater in the historic Heights Christian Church. But near the close of its sixth season, OPIH has staged a musically polished, tightly choreographed Figaro, with finely rehearsed performers and an orchestra that glistens under artistic director William Weibel's guiding hand.
The opera, which premiered in 1786, is set in Seville and unfolds during a brief period before the wedding of the valet Figaro and Susanna, a lady-in-waiting. Both are servants inside the castle of the philandering Count Almaviva (baritone Christopher Holloway) and his wife, Rosina (soprano Lisa Forstmann). Contrary to the title, the opera focuses less on the servants' wedding and more on the noble couple's troubled marriage.
Figaro (bass-baritone Aaron Borst) faces major obstacles to marrying Susanna (soprano Amanda Borst). For one thing, the Count would like nothing better than to bed Susanna himself. For another, Figaro's friend Dr. Bartolo (bass-baritone Tommy George) wants him to make good on a past promise to wed an old woman named Marcellina (soprano Nancy Markeloff).
Susanna and the Countess are discussing the Count's infidelity when Figaro suggests a scheme to rekindle the royal couple's love. In an anonymous letter, they invite the Count to a rendezvous in the palace garden with an unidentified lover. They recruit Cherubino to help, but the young boy is smitten with the Countess, which further complicates matters. Figaro's plan to lure the Count to unwittingly seduce his own wife unfurls in a series of silly mishaps. But in the end, the selfish noble is successfully thrust back into her arms.
Singers who play Susanna often see her as an ingenue who flirts irresistibly. In this show, Amanda Borst portrays her as good-hearted and sensible. The delicate soprano wraps her finely honed instrument and acting talent into a playful yet stunning portrait. Aaron Borst (who is Amanda Borst's real-life husband) depicts Figaro with satisfying ease, especially during his ear-pleasing moments of indignation toward the Count.
In her solemn arias, soprano Forstmann is stately as the injured Countess. Performing the centerpiece role of the Count, Holloway acts with waltzlike precision, and his sense of comedy is masterful. Singing the adolescent Cherubino, the mezzo-soprano Russian native Gulnara Mitzanova lends professionalism to the production.
Though the show's principals are top-notch, in the lesser roles, Kate Moscato and Sam Waas need to improve their Italian diction. The chorus sings well but acts unevenly. Except for a few loud opening measures after the overture, the 18-person orchestra lead by Weibel is deeply satisfying.
Figaro holds up well in the intimacy of Lambert Hall, despite hitches during set changes in the fourth act. While the hall lacks an orchestra pit, the house is ideal for comic opera because the actors' faces can be seen clearly from most seats.
Thanks to the company's increased fund-raising and Weibel's far-reaching reputation, Opera in the Heights now attracts singers from all over the country. The success of Figaro is proof that Houston Grand Opera is no longer the only professional troupe in town.
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