Vancouver Opera pairs tradition with playfulness in The Marriage of Figaro

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      A Vancouver Opera production. At the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Saturday, April 24. Continues April 27 and 29, and May 1 and 4

      Figaro, Figaro, Figaro. His name’s right in the title, but it’s hard to think of another production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s comic opera where he cuts such a swath. In Vancouver Opera’s latest rendition, we meet him right after that famous overture: Daniel Okulitch steps out from the closed curtain and stares us straight down with a wide ironic grin—a mischievous smile that says, “Now that we’re all in on the joke, let the madness begin.” Then the drapes whisk aside to a tableau where all the characters are frozen; Figaro snaps his fingers and the opera begins.

      This is the Canadian-born bass-baritone’s signature role, and he brings it youth and physical humour—he comes off a bit like a taller, smarter Brendan Fraser. But he also intuitively understands the biting sense of irony and insurrection Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte were after in putting this once-banned revolutionary play to music. Okulitch performs at least two songs with cotton shoved up his nose (he’s been slapped yet again and is staving off a bleed) and does a hilarious hidden victory dance when he pulls one over on Count Almaviva.

      On one hand, this production, helmed by German stage director Chris Alexander, is a traditional mounting. Under the baton of Jonathan Darlington, Mozart’s mellifluous music is a study in refined restraint, both in tempo and in feather-light touch. The sets are a straightforward structure covered in a Franí§ois Boucher–styled mural of nudes in a garden. There are all the necessary doors for characters to run in and out of, and statues, chairs, and planters for them to hide behind.

      But the conservative approach does not extend to the performers, with Okulitch setting the tone: this is a young, lithe bunch who play ebulliently with the wars of class and love that rule the plot. The farce may be big, but most of the acting, and singing, is about nuance.

      To briefly summarize the three-hours-plus of deception and high jinks: in a palace near Seville, Count Almaviva’s barber Figaro is set to marry the maid Susanna, but the count lusts after her. The countess cooks up a plan with Susanna to teach the count a lesson, while the count connives to prevent the wedding. Baritone Aaron St. Clair Nicholson plays Count Almaviva with ample Latin swagger, impatient with the antics of his minions; just watch him suffer his subjects’ children handing him bouquets, then toss them aside. But his singing is surprisingly subtle (on one or two occasions, he could have pumped up the volume) and shows the contradictions in his character. Mezzo-soprano Julie Boulianne puts a fresh spin on her “trouser” role as the young page Cherubino, who pines for the countess, making him hormonal and boyishly bashful, and pulling off the aria “Non so pií¹ cosa son” with unassuming charm.

      Soprano Rhoslyn Jones, as the countess, brings all the silliness to a halt with her arias—full, rounded, and flooded with heartbreak, especially her lament about her philandering husband, “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro”.

      And therein lies the odd thing about this Figaro. Aside from Jones’s star turns, and some adept trios and ensemble numbers, some of its recitative scenes are more memorable than its usually transcendent arias. This is not necessarily bad. It means all the banter and deception is not treated as filler between big songs—it’s full of playful action and engaging characters, led, of course, by our ever-charming host. And there’s a certain democracy to it that you can’t help but think old Amadeus himself might have approved of.

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      Costel Cater

      May 3, 2010 at 5:56pm

      I watched Le Nozze in theatres at Seattle, Teatro Real, Bucharest and some. And this one in my adopted home town.
      I liked the VO version of Le Nozze, very elegant, but somewhat different form what I am used to. A bit on the light side.
      Very enjoyable otherwise.