The Michigan Opera Works gave an intimate performance of Mozart”s classic opera “The Marriage of Figaro” last weekend at the Residential College Theater. Theatergoers packed the tiny, 250-seat auditorium to experience a great collaboration of musical talent on campus.
While it might prove difficult to translate the largeness of an operatic performance such as “Figaro” to the small RC Theater, the Opera Works, directed by Timothy Semanik, made a graceful connection between their space and production by toning down both costumes and set to reflect a modern and more approachable take on the show. A pit orchestra situated in the auditorium”s left wing, where a section of seats had been torn out, brought an element of closeness to the music rarely experienced in other theaters.
Semanik, also the conductor, led an ensemble of string, woodwind and brass instruments as well as a harpsichord to deploy an almost surround-sound texture to the songs. This effect, when accompanied by singers standing on a stage fewer than fifteen feet in depth, grew to an awesome musical effect. Notes of the instrument melding with the voice seemed to bubble over into the audience”s laps, and then culminated at a point in the fourth act when Figaro crossed the boundary of the stage to sing among those seated in the front row.
At the opera”s beginning, Figaro and his fianc Susanna plan for their wedding night Figaro is measuring the length of their marriage bed but their happiness is interrupted when Susanna reminds Figaro of the Count Almaviva”s desire to exercise his feudal right by spending the wedding night with her. Later, with the entrance of Marcellina, Figaro”s maid, a second obstacle to the wedding is presented. Marcellina claims that Figaro must marry her if he cannot repay a certain debt, which he owes. The love plot thickens even further when the page Cherubino, a woman dressed as a man who later dresses as a woman, enters the scene lamenting his love for the Countess Almaviva.
With the vocal score ranging from ensemble to duet to acapella, accompanied by full orchestra to a light tapping of the harpsichord, a series of jests and mix-ups in the closet lead the characters on stage to a false meeting in the forest, where the Countess and Susanna, disguised as one another, trick the Count into mistaking the Countess for Susanna, duly humbling him to repentance. At the same time Figaro and Marcellina discover that Figaro is her long lost son Cherubino is married to a woman named Babarina, who saves him from entering the army. And three weddings later, Figaro and Susanna reunite in a passionate scene to end the opera on a joyful note.
A strong female cast highlighted the performance. Monica Swartout-Bebow as Babarino gave an arresting and hilarious performance that ranged between beautiful love arias to gestural comedy, from mooning over a piece of ribbon to marching around stage with a broom over her shoulder and a duster tucked under her arm. Emily Benner, a powerful soprano playing the betrayed countess, took the performance to an emotional height with an effecting performance of songs about sorrow and forgiveness, which countered the opera”s high-paced energy. Much of that fun, riotous energy grew out of Kathryn Alexander”s vivacious performance as Susanna.
Allen Schrott as Figaro and John Glann as the Count Almaviva both gave solid performances, commanding the stage with their physicality and velvet, baritone voices.