Review: Calgary Opera in fine form as it opens season with classic

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Mozart’s effervescent, fun-filled The Marriage of Figaro is the opening opera for Calgary Opera’s 51st season. With attractive period sets and costumes, wit and cleverness in the stage direction, the production is sure to please.

With half a century of experience behind it, the company is now a mature organization, and can be relied upon to deliver sensible, interesting productions of major works. This production is certainly that: the careful preparation and thought behind the production is evident everywhere from the staging to the choice of singers and to the instrumental accompaniment. Operatically speaking, this is the full meal deal.

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Comic opera is notoriously hard to bring off, especially period works. The comic sensibility of the past can be difficult to capture in terms of which a modern audience will respond. Fortunately, in this production, those involved have trusted Mozart’s dramatic instincts and the ability of the story to get through to a listener without the introduction of extraneous elements.

The comedy of human relationships, of love, its playfulness, its mistakes, its heartbreak, are all to the fore, conveyed by a fine integration of music and stage action. Mozart’s ability to create musical lines that are both beautiful and express the immediate situation on stage is central here and gives life to the comedy. The staging never gets in the way of the expression of emotion and feeling as expressed through the music.

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Lucia Cesaroni as Susanna and Talise Trevigne as Countessa in The Marriage of Figaro. HarderLee Photography

Conductor Jonathan Bandini and the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra provide the musical throughline. With brisk, but not over-brisk, tempos and a sure sense of how to accompany the singers, the orchestra provides an invisible, but palpable, support to the singers. The singers are never covered and are able to create the many fun-filled moments in which the opera abounds without forcing their voices. Bandini, as before, has a sure sense of how this music goes, and the orchestra impressively well.

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As performances of this opera go, this production tilts slightly toward what is often called “period style.” The sets are simple, almost minimalistic, and follow the spirit of sets of the 18th century. Many of the vocal lines are slightly embellished, and the singers avoid the heroic manner of grand opera, staying within the vocal proportions of early opera. Throughout the performance, there is a delicacy and refinement that suits the world of Mozart and the 18th-century musical sensibility.

The cast for this opera is large, but if there is one leading role it is probably that of Susanna, for it is through her mental prism that much of the action takes place. Lucia Cesaroni brilliantly portrayed the cleverness and playful elements of her role, with her clear soprano carrying the top line in the ensembles with authority. Heard in many ensembles throughout the opera, she had her star turn in the last act with the well-known aria “Deh vieni, non tardar” in which she baits the unsuspecting Figaro. This was an exceptionally fine performance of this famous aria, the nocturnal side of the music well characterized in the context of the underlying humour.

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Branden Olsen as Antonio, Marcell Bakonyi as Figaro in Calgary Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Photos, HarderLee Photography jpg

The production’s Figaro is Marcell Bakonyi, making his debut with the company. Vocally robust, he was well suited to the role, as successful in the acting element as in his singing. Physically, his persona nicely contrasted with the more aristocratic Count Almaviva. His familiar first-act aria was the hit it needed to be, and he was excellent in the mixing of cleverness and naiveté that is central to his character.

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Phillip Addis as The Count in Calgary Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Photos, HarderLee Photography jpg

The two noble figures, the count and the countess are played by Phillip Addis and Talise Trevigne, both familiar to Calgary audiences from previous appearances with the company. Experienced in all things operatic, they provided the aristocratic element around which the opera is based. Both have moments in the third act where they have a chance to shine, Addis histrionic and powerful as the enraged count, and Trevigne receiving the biggest applause of the night for her remarkable performance of “Dove sono.”

Carolyn Sproule plays Cherubino, the adolescent boy who is inconveniently everywhere. He (she) gets two of the most familiar arias in the opera, and they were sung with confidence, fine vocal technique, and distinctive character.

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Matthew Trevino as Bartolo, Justine Ledoux as Marcellina in Calgary Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Photos, HarderLee Photography jpg

Matthew Trevino and Justine Ledoux sang the roles of Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina, injecting the needed comedy to their parts, as well as providing fine singing. This was especially the case with Trevino’s “La Vendetta” in the first act, expertly sung and with a first-class Italianate voice and style. Nicole Leung and Barbarina and Branden Olsen rounded out the case as the teenage Barbarina and the gardener Antonio, both making strong appearances, the roles well characterized. Leung’s cameo aria in the final act had all the charm this scene requires, a special moment in the opera.

This is an ensemble-based opera, with many interactions between the various combinations of characters. Through these interactions one is able to sense the overarching narrator of the original Beaumarchais play and Da Ponte as librettist. In 18th-century language, the opera makes a point that Connie Francis made in her famous pop song from my youth: Everybody is somebody’s fool. In this lies the cosmic comedy of what it means to be human, and that love is a dangerous game – points central to opera of this time. These fundamental truths, told in comedy and wreathed in Mozart’s exquisite music, are excellently portrayed in this fine, worthwhile production.

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Nicole Leung as Barbarina, Carolyn Sproule as Cherubino, and Jillian Clow as Bridesmaid 2 in Calgary Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro. Photos, HarderLee Photography jpg

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