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Going Places In the Berkshires
CurtainUp Reviews
The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro)

Move over Three Tenors and make room for the three Divas--Kelley Nassief, Sari Gruber (sopranos) and Margaret Lattimore (mezzo-soprano). All three are distinguished graduates of the Tanglewood Music Center and with an impressive and growing list of performance credentials. It is thus particularly appropriate for them to be teamed up as the leading ladies in the Berkshire Opera Company's splendid production, The Marriage of Figaro. And what a team these divas are--superb as actors and singers and as if that weren't enough, all three are beautiful and brimming with youthful vigor. All three are perfectly cast--Sari Gruber as the perky and spirited chambermaid Susanna; Kelley Nassief as the plaintive Countess Almaviva who, with Susanna's help wins back her husband's affection and at the same time teaches him a lesson; and Margaret Lattimore as a delightfully flirtatious Cherubino--a role dubbed in opera circles as a trouser role.

I won't bother to sort out the plot twists and turns that animate the gorgeous solos and musical combinations that make Figaro one of Mozart's most enduring works. Suffice it to say that it is an opera about love in all its permutations and that all ends well that begins in a muddle of who's number one in whose affection. What's more, thanks to one of the most intelligent and enjoyable English translations of an opera (by Ruth and Thomas Martin) I've ever heard, everything is almost 100% understandable and, at the risk of making up a word, Mozart-ian in the way the words are attuned to the musical rhythms. I might add that I brought two friends who are long-time opera buffs, devoted to the Metropolitan's super stars and super titles. Both came with a sort of ho-hum attitude but left admitting that this was one of the best Figaros they've seen--that the translation "worked" and that these stars outshone the "big hitters" they last saw at the Met.

Figaro demands not just terrific leads but all-around top caliber singing to make the most of its myriad solos and ensemble numbers, Happily, artistic director Joel Revzen who also conducts this production has assembled a top-notch cast to give support to the three divas. At the top of this list is of course the title character acted with great panache by a very fine bass baritone. Kevin Short.

Baritone Peter Halverson's interpretation of Count Almaviva reminded me a bit of the "new" interpretation of Nora's husband in this year's hit revival of Ibsen's The Doll's House (our review)--a man of narrowness but obvious passion and not above a bit of physical as well as emotional wife battering. In the supporting player department, bass-baritone John Davies is an amusingly befuddled and malicious Dr. Bartolo and Marion Pratnicki is a splendid and impressive Marcellina. One of the most amusing minor players is tenor David Congelosi as the music teacher Don Basilio. The minor player to watch, as in watch-this-rising star, is soprano Ariana Zukerman, whose Barbarina makes an otherwise too-long fourth act forgivable. Also deserving positive mentions are tenors David Shapero as Antonio and Jon Kolbet as Don Curzio.

Stage Director Mary Duncan has seen to it that these fine performers are well supported by good production values. There are four different stage sets by David P. Gordon--all in the spare and simple tradition but all very appropriate. The last act has a very stage-y mock moon and a sleek almost Southwestern look that has enough eye appeal to overlook its less-than-Italian aura.

To end all this kudos with a quibble: Three and a half hours is a long time, especially for those neophyte opera goers and kids this company is trying to attract. Either a firm blue-pencil or a late afternoon matinee with a dinner break would be in order . I saw a Shakespeare production this way last season in New York and it was a wonderful experience. Given the perfect picnic setting of the Koussevitzky Arts Center this would be even more fun here.

As this review is being posted, only 5 performances remain. If you're not in the area to take advantage of them, save this review as a reminder to check out this company's offerings next summer.

Though this is a primarily a theater site, we posted five opera reviews this summer. Of these only Figaro fits the traditional opera repertory. Each was a different and novel experience and we hope to bring you more of our views of this fastest growing of the performing art forms in the future. Reviewed so far:
In the Berkshire. . .
Les Mamelles de Tirésias
As part of New York's Lincoln Center Summer'97 Festival. . .
The Solo Magic Flute

© August 1997, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.

Composer, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte Directed by Mary Duncan
Conducted by Joel Revzen
English tranlation by Ruth and Thomas Martin
With With Kelley Nassief as the Countess; Sari Gruber as Susanna; Margaret Lattimore as Cherubino; Kevin Short as Figaro; Peter Halverson as the Count
Berkshire Opera Company
Robert Boland Theatre at Berkshire Community College's Koussevitzky Arts Center
Aug. 16, 18(M), 21, 23, 25 (M) 28, 30 (M=2 p.m. matinee, all other performances 8 p.m, preceded by a free lecture)

Some Background on The Marriage of Figaro
  • "Figaro" as it's often called is based on the play by Pierre-Auguste Beaumarchais -- said to have helped foment the French Revolution. However Mozart who was not political did not object to having his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte cut the political and social reference in order to sharpen it as a musical drama.
  • The opera premiered on May 1, 1786 and was such a rousing success that almost every piece had to be encored. A good thing? Not quite when you consider that this doubled the length of an already long performance--at least that day since thereafter encores were banned by order of the Austrian Emperor. In any case, this initial triumph did not last beyond 8 performances. Later that year, however, the opera triumphed again in Prague and led to a commission for another Mozart masterpiece, Don Giovanni.
  • Figaro had its American premiere (at the Metropolitan Opera) in 1894 and while it remained in that company's repertory until 1917, it was then dropped until 1940.
  • The wily barber-valet also served as the hero of another opera, Rossini's Barber of Seville but Mozart's opera is the greater challenge since it demands stellar singers of all its roles.

Some Background on the Berkshire Opera Company
  • The Berkshire Opera Company is one of those wonderful little engines that keep chugging along despite the financial difficulties common to regional artistic enterprises.
  • In its thirteen year history, the company has wandered from home to home, bravely putting on two fully staged productions each summer. This year, it has found its most spacious and appropriate home to date in the Robert Boland Theatre at Berkshire Community College's Koussevitzky Arts Center which is set smack in the middle of some of the Berkshires' most magnificent rolling hills. The beautiful inside space has a large, raked for uniformly good seating orchestra and generously proportioned stage.
  • The company puts on two fully staged operas each season (this summer's first production, Handel's Semmele, (based on a play by William Congreve) was semi-staged because that's was its original intention.hat was called for.
  • All operas are in English as part of the company's commitment making opera accessible to wider audiences. That means younger and often new-to-opera audiences--and indeed anyone who has attended any of them can attest to the fact that audiences are spread across the age spectrum and include a fair smattering of children.

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