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Review: Opera Atelier’s The Marriage of Figaro a pleasant surprise

Opera Atelier’s the Marriage of Figaro runs through Nov. 4.

Bruce Zinger

Title
The Marriage of Figaro
Company
Opera Atelier
Venue
Elgin Theatre
City
Toronto

The best thing that can happen to a critic is being pleasantly surprised, I thought, the moment the curtain fell on the opening-night performance of Opera Atelier's The Marriage of Figaro.

One goes to an Opera Atelier production knowing what to expect: a particular style the company nurtures and applies to operas created between the time of Monteverdi and von Weber that involves stock gestures, a basic dance vocabulary, lush costumes, ubiquitous tights on muscular male dancers, painted sets – and taking pleasure in elaborate artificiality and camp. This Figaro, however, is different.

Director Marshall Pynkoski has twinned the Lorenzo Da Ponte libretto with commedia dell'arte, the improvised itinerant comedic form that had its heyday from the 1600s to 1800s. Pynkoski and costume designer Martha Mann have clad the side characters that create complications for the opera's two central couples in classic commedia costumes and masks, and the strangeness of Dr. Bartolo, Marcellina, Cherubino and Basilio finally made sense. As things progress, some structural similarities too between commedia and Figaro are gradually teased out. In the Mozart-Da Ponte opera, maidservant Susanna and her fiancé Figaro plan to get married but obstacles emerge. Their master, the Count, is dead set against it, as are Bartolo and Marcellina, who at first blackmail Figaro then, in a scene of reconciliation, are revealed as his long-lost parents. The Count's right-hand man Basilio, and the Cupid-like, sex-obsessed creature Cherubino also intervene. Similarly, in what is a basic commedia dell'arte plot, the young lovers are hindered by the vecchi, a menagerie of older characters, and employ servants for intrigues.

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These are the frills: Those of us who know nothing of either da Ponte or commedia will still take a lot from this production because it's dramatically sound, with nary a loose end. Much of the typical Opera Atelier hand gesturing to express emotional states is wisely eliminated, and the physicality of group scenes is tightly choreographed to the music to great comic effect. This Figaro is actually funny. The stock gestures only appear in the odd solo aria, and other times only to hint at a character's pretence or deception. In the Countess's second aria, Dove sono i bei momenti, a naturalist style alternates with the mannered performance – as if laid out for us to decide which one we prefer. The sets by Gerard Gauci are, in Opera Atelier tradition, still quirky, painted panels, but in this production they do the job of co-creating a world. Though Figaro and the Count are dressed in tight pants, as is OA's wont, Douglas Williams and Stephen Hegedus are such good singing actors that they survive – nay, transcend – the OA tights unscathed.

Christopher Enns as Basilio and Don Curzio also distinguished himself and was a welcome spice to any scene he was part of. Mireille Asselin was of secure and limpid voice as Susanna, with just the right kind of understated comedy. The Countess's two solo arias did not sit well with Peggy Kriha Dye's voice on Thursday night, however, and came out as effortful and breathless. Mireille Lebel could do much more with Cherubino vocally, play with colour and sing her own two solo arias less uniformly. But she was excellent dramatically, and the female principals had easy stage chemistry in any combination of two or three. The Venite, inginocchiatevi scene in which Susanna cross-dresses Cherubino in women's clothes while the Countess looks on was golden. Instead of adding awkward feminine accessories to Cherubino's Pierrot-like outfit, Susanna went one level of artifice down and unbraided Cherubino's hair to Lebel's natural length. The Countess found Cherubino irresistible as a woman, not as a boy. Hello, lesbian desire on the operatic stage! Always good to see you.

I have been quoting here the arias in original Italian titles, although the libretto of this production is in English translation by British lyricist and playwright Jeremy Sams. It's a fair and witty translation, but I did miss the long Italian vowels in Susanna's Deh vieni and the famous duettino Canzonetta sull'aria. The English doesn't add much to the production – the surtitles still need to be read – nor does it take away too much from it either, as the staging works well in other ways.

The stage business carries through the occasional chaotic moments on the music side of things as well. Mozart operas on period instruments are an acquired taste … that I have yet to acquire. (I'm all in favour of his sacred music, symphonies and concertos on period instruments, though – it's easier to enjoy the filigrees in orchestration and meek honeyed brass in some of those other formats.) Opera is complicated. There is less volume and less bite and contrast in the music, and natural brass is known to produce unexpected sounds at inopportune moments. There were stage/pit co-ordination issues on opening night during big, complicated scenes like the end of Act 2, and too many moments when the voices dropped and the instruments were louder. But no matter. The inner logic of the staging pressed on as a well wound-up mechanism.

Staging Figaro has a long and colourful history. Christoph Marthaler set the opera in a drab municipal marriage bureau, Claus Guth set it in a country estate of the latter half of the 20th century, Giorgio Strehler set it inside a Fragonard painting. Marshall Pynkoski's Figaro is a posher cousin to commedia dell'arte set against some pretty painting and that works well too. Figaro is all that, and more, as smart productions continue to show us.

The Marriage of Figaro runs through Nov. 4 (operaatelier.com).

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