By Jane Rosenberg
Los Angeles is in the midst of a citywide celebration of all things Figaro. Courtesy of the LA Opera we have The Ghosts of Versailles, soon to be followed by The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. Even LA Theaterworks jumped into the mix with a semi-staged production of The Guilty Mother, Beaumarchais’ lesser-known sequel to his two more famous creations. But the delightful surprise of this feast of Figaro is a little known opera by Saverio Mercadante, The Two Figaros (I due Figaro) as performed by the students and faculty of Opera UCLA and the UCLA Philharmonia.
Figaro, following in the scheming footsteps of Hermes, the trickster god and his protégé Harlequin, immediately became an iconic character. It’s no wonder that Mozart and Rossini tried their hands at Beaumarchais’ material. In fact, Figaro was so potent a creation that a French actor and author, Honoré Richard Martelly, penned a sequel to the plots set by Rossini and Mozart. The play was so full of mirth and cunning that it was ripe source material for yet another opera.
Saverio Mercadante took to the challenge, employing the talents of librettist, Felice Romani. Mercadante, who composed fifty-nine operas, was as highly regarded as his contemporaries, Donizetti, Bellini, and Verdi. Unfortunately his reputation plummeted after his death in 1870 and today his works are rarely performed. But there is plenty to admire in this opera buffo, which was composed in 1826 and premiered in 1835. Though some passages seem extracted directly from Rossini’s operas, there are a number of arias of bel canto beauty, fiery cabalettas, and thunderous ensembles, along with Spanish touches à la Boccherini, which lend charm.
The usual suspects are here: Count and Countess Almaviva, Figaro and his wife, Susanna, and the always lovesick, Cherubino. Rosina and her husband, the count, have a daughter, Inès. Figaro, in league with Don Alvaro, has persuaded the count to give Inès’ hand and dowry to Alvaro, who has promised to divide the spoils with Figaro. Inès, however, is in love with Cherubino, no longer a teenager and now a colonel. Cherubino sneaks into the household, presenting himself as a servant whose name he says is also Figaro – hence two Figaros.
With the three women in the household plotting together to wed Inès to Cherubino, and Almaviva and Figaro favoring Alvaro, a battle of wits ensues. The outcome? After whispered conversations, characters hiding in closets, multiple disguises, feigned tears, and stolen kisses, Cherubino prevails. It turns out Alvaro is none other than Cherubino’s servant in disguise. With the ruse revealed, Count Almaviva relents and gives his blessing to the young couple, even forgiving the deceitful Figaro. With the addition of Plagio, a young playwright, to document the goings-on, we have all the ingredients of a satisfying opera-buffo.
On the stage of the intimate Freud Playhouse, a whimsical interpretation of Almaviva’s villa and courtyard outside Seville was prettily brought to life with tiled staircases, stuccoed walls, potted palms, floating clouds in a Mediterranean sky, and period costumes worthy of any grand opera house. The winning cast of students (and a handful of professionals) both on stage and in the pit, conducted by Joseph Colaneri, conveyed the exuberance of Mercadante’s score with surprising artistry. And under Peter Kazaras’ able direction, the comedic hi-jinks were delivered with spot-on timing.
Teri Richter was both piquant and imposing all at once, her character as the imperturbable Susanna sung with a bright and flexible coloratura. The count was superbly performed by LA Opera tenor, Arnold Geis, his supple voice able to navigate both highs and lows. In the second act, we moved into Donizetti territory and the duet sung by Geis and Richter shone with complexity both musically and dramatically and was, perhaps, the highlight of the evening.
As Figaro, Gregorio Gonzalez was a winning trickster, infectiously conspiratorial in his recitatives and robust in the cabalettas, though the lower end of his baritone was often overpowered by the orchestra. Annie Sherman as Inès was consistently adorable, funny, and musically adept at the intricacies of the soprano role. Meagan Martin’s Cherubino had all the necessary swagger and guile, but she had difficulty projecting in the lower registers. The Countess of Joanna Lynn-Jacobs sung her mezzo part with warmth and color. The part of Plagio, well sung by an endearing Ian Walker, had a guileless sincerity to it, making me wonder if someday he might make an engaging Papageno.
Take a group of young, talented, and enthusiastic musicians and singers, add a good director and a sensitive conductor, then set the opera on an intimate stage. It’s a recipe for a delightful evening well spent.
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Cast (for Feb.15 and 20, alternate cast Feb. 13 and 22)
Count Almaviva: Arnold Geis
Countess Almaviva: Joanna Lynn-Jacobs
Inès: Annie Sherman
Cherubino: Meagan Martin
Figaro: Gregorio Gonzalez
Susanna: Terri Richter
Don Alvaro: Gregory Sliskovich
Plagio: Ian Walker
Servo: Myron Aguilar
Composer: Saverio Mercadante
Librettist: Felice Romani
Conductor: Joseph Colaneri
Director: Peter Kazaras
Scenic Designer: Adam Alonso
Lighting Designer: Ginevra Lombardo
Choreographer: Kevin Williamson
Photos by Jeff Lorch courtesy of U.C.L.A. Opera.
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To read more opera, dance and music reviews by Jane Rosenberg click HERE.
Jane Rosenberg is the author and illustrator of SING ME A STORY: The Metropolitan Opera’s Book of Opera Stories for Children. Jane is also the author and illustrator of DANCE ME A STORY: Twelve Tales of the Classic Ballets.