Wednesday, October 19, 2011

La bella scena: I due Figaro at Amore Opera (U.S. premiere)

Amore Opera's season continues ambitiously, with the American premiere of I due Figaro, an 1826 opera by Saverio Mercadante. Following the recent rediscovery of the manuscript score in Madrid, Mercadante's work returned to the stage in Salzburg this summer under the auspices of Riccardo Muti (production video here.) The festival of Figaro operas Fred Plotkin speculated about at the time is now being brought to the stage by Amore Opera. I due Figaro postdates Rossini's Barbiere, and its narrative is the latest of the Mozart-Rossini-Mercadante triad, but it is based not on the third part of Beaumarchais' trilogy, but on a French play of 1795. Mercadante's setting of the libretto by Felice Romani not only exploits its comedy, but explores its emotional subtleties. The controversial plot sees Count Almaviva's attempts to assert himself as a domestic tyrant aided and abetted by Figaro. The latter is considerably changed here from his earlier incarnations: he wants to remain in his master's good graces, and earn a considerable fee, by promoting the suit of the socially ambitious lackey who wants to marry Inez, the daughter of the Almavivas. Inez, however, loves another: Cherubino, who has grown into a handsome and self-assured colonel (and is still a mezzo.) Poor Inez despairs with the extremity of the adolescent she is, and Rosina wants to help her daughter marry for love ("What misery," she sings in her aria, "to marry for convenience alone!") The hundred tricks in this opera, though, are chiefly carried out by Susanna. As the latter says, "Alfin siam femmine, cervello abbiamo"; after all, we are women, and are clever. This explicit overturning of the right order of the world--the libretto plays extensively with the idea of the household as a microcosm of society at large, and the count's 'rightful place' at its head--scandalized conservative regimes of the early nineteenth century, and makes for delicious and thought-provoking comedy.

Whether thanks to longer rehearsals or the bel canto experience of conductor Gregory Buchalter, the orchestra seemed more coordinated and energetic in the Mercadante than the Mozart. There were a few moments where stage and pit threatened to come unstuck, but on the whole things were carried off smoothly and with sensitivity to the nuances of the action. The staging (put together by Nathan Hull, who must be as busy as Figaro himself) was straightforward, wittily emphasizing the piece's comedy. Spanish dance rhythms abounded; this local color was reinforced for the fandango-ignorant audiences of the twenty-first century by dancing where possible, and deployment of fans by the ladies. In the ensembles, especially, I found Mercadante's style reminiscent of Rossini (which I mean to use as a stylistic point of reference for this unfamiliar score, rather than a 'poor relation' slight.) In a number of instances, the tone of the music undermined the stated irony of the characters' actions... or their stated sincerity.

The six principal singers were all commendably engaged with the music and each other; vocally as dramatically, I would be inclined to give the edge to the ladies.  Elena McEntire made an elegant Countess, nicely letting us glimpse Rosina's feistiness under mature melancholy in her aria, "Prender che val marito." Tenor Shawn Thuris, as the Count, sounded less than perfectly comfortable at the top of his range, but displayed impressive vocal agility, and admirable sensitivity to text. His scenic assurance made Almaviva credibly pompous without sacrificing dramatic nuance. His eventual conversion was believable and welcome. In the role of Inez, Sheena Ramirez pouted, flounced, sighed, and tackled her bel canto runs with equal enthusiasm, going so far as to cheekily vocalize on "Der Hölle Rache." (I would have appreciated a touch more differentiation between her natural conduct and her miming of her "proper" demeanor as a dutiful daughter, but this is a quibble.) Daniel Quintana sang the demanding role of the much-discomfited Figaro. He has a pleasant baritone timbre, but often sounded pushed and dry.

Iris Karlin made an appropriately energetic Susanna. She seemed to have some intonation problems at the start of the evening, but warmed up nicely. Karlin handled the considerable vocal and dramatic demands of the role with aplomb; her scene with Thurlis' Count was nuanced and charming. Mezzo Abigail Fischer, in the central role of Cherubino, was the vocal standout of the evening. Fischer has a distinctive timbre and impressive range, and sang with dynamic and dramatic nuance. She also incarnated Cherubino's impishness delightfully, with swagger that was a pleasure to watch. Her Act II aria was a highlight of the evening, enveloping us all in Cherubino's dreamy tenderness. All in all, it was a pleasure to see this intriguing and engaging piece brought to the twenty-first stage, where I hope it will stay. The run at Amore Opera will continue through the 29th, with alternating casts (the other Cherubino is the very fine Hayden DeWitt); tickets here.

Curtain call photos:
Count and Countess: Thurlis and McEntire

Inez and Susanna: Ramirez and Karlin

I due Figaro: Fischer and Quintana

Company bows

Buchalter acknowledges the orchestra

With Nathan Hull


  1. Mercadante was considered significant in his era. It would be nice if he came back to life.

  2. @Dr. B. So it would seem! Do you have "further reading" recommendations? I'd also like to hear more of him, not just from an academic-curiosity standpoint; this was charming, with a lot of interesting ideas to play around with.

  3. What a cool review. As if that previous dashing Cherubino in green velvet wasn't enough, now a grownup Cherubino who, on top of everything, remains a mezzo! Heard of this opera, but had no idea somebody somewhere actually staged it.

    Off to spend a ridiculous amount of time on Abigail Fischer's website.

  4. @DTO Thanks. And, I know! Am completely enamored of this Cherubino; also spent ridiculous amounts of time on Fischer's website. Listened to the Brahms a lot of times. :) Hopefully this New York start is a good omen for the likelihood of it migrating to an ambitious opera company near you.


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