Nickel City Opera is reaching toward new heights with Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro.” Every opera fan knows and loves this drama, it is one of the greatest achievements of humanity, and it is tricky to pull off. The music is transparent and challenging. The action is almost nonstop. And besides the dramatic and vocal shenanigans, the opera has depth and pathos. It’s a tall order.
With that in mind, this weekend’s production, at the Riviera Theatre, deserves a lot of Bravos.
Company chief Valerian Ruminski makes an earthy, appealing Figaro. And as is the case whenever Ruminski is on stage in any opera, he commands attention. The show has a lot of funny moments, and his are among the funniest. He wears the part well, and that booming voice is a kick.
The other singers also have fine voices. The twist in this staging is Ray Chenez, the countertenor from Lockport who has been garnering great reviews all over the globe, most recently in France, where he was featured by the Royal Opera de Versailles.
Chenez sings Cherubino, which in opera is known as a “trouser role” – a young man who, because of his high voice, is portrayed by a woman.
A lot of folks, including me, shy away from countertenors. Casting one as Cherubino, while not unheard of, is a controversial move. In this case it is a complete success. Chenez is fantastic. He is marvelous vocally, hitting all the high notes with ease, and bringing a wistfulness to his hormonal arias. He seems like a born comedian. Even with that high voice, he is a masculine presence, and in the last act – the smoldering garden scene – he even became a bit predatory. I never picked up that vibe from any woman singing the part, however gifted an actress she was.
Maria Teresa Magisano had presence as the Countess Almaviva, and her arias, some of the most sublime music Mozart ever wrote, were highlights. Magisano was Mimi in Nickel City Opera’s “La Boheme” three years ago, and in “Figaro,” she projected a similar air of innocence and vulnerability.
Amy Grable as Susanna could be heard through the hall, her voice bell-like and clear. She had to opt out of the low notes in the famous “Deh vieni non tardar,” which demands a wide range. But she showed good vocal stamina, essential because Susanna is almost always on stage. She also had an appealing ease on stage. Jessica Best was made an amusing and attractive Marcellina, and Jena Abati, as Barbarina, was girlish and engaging.
As the lecherous Count Almaviva, Wright was a bit of a lightweight. He has a beautiful voice, but his singing was mild when it should have been explosive, sweet when it should have been acid, and often too quiet. I leave it up to scholars to debate why the Count is a more fascinating figure than Figaro, but he is. He dominates the drama. The opera’s ending is not so much about Figaro as it is about the Count.
Wright might be too young for the part. His Count is a handsome, spoiled 20-something, and he can be hilarious – as in one scene when he was splayed in a chair, exhausted by developments, waving people away. But he needs to be more feral, more regal, more a force to be reckoned with. Give him time.
The sets were simple but lovely. Costumes were beautiful, in hazy colors. When the curtain rises on the Countess’ chambers, with the windows open to the sky, I actually sighed with appreciation. The trellised garden in the last scene had beauty and atmosphere. The intimate, rococo Riviera Theatre, by the way, is the perfect venue for “Figaro.” You could almost imagine yourself at the opera’s premiere, in 1786. That is a magical thought.
Keep in mind I saw the dress rehearsal, which was complicated because, among other things, Marcellina was delayed because she got into a fender bender. But I thought the production, like many things in life, could have benefited from more time and thought. The orchestra, conducted by Michael Ching, played well, but much of the first half, starting with the overture, seemed to be dragging. On the other hand, in the second half, the sublime “Letter Duet” was taken too fast.
Though the comic touches are fine-tuned, the company missed some chances to play up emotion and depth. The opera’s adult shockers, such as when the Countess learns that her husband has offered her servant money for sex, were muted. You didn’t feel the heartbreak. The climactic final scene, when the Count begs the Countess’ forgiveness, came too suddenly. Happily, the performance made up for that by adding an unusual touch – a stunning silence as the Countess considered. That was beautifully finessed, and I ended the opera as you should with “Figaro” – with tears in my eyes.