Saturday, February 6, 2016

Go Groovy, HGO: A Figaro Follow-Up

[Members of The Marriage of Figaro cast; photo by Lynn Lane]

Last night we saw the second-to-last performance of Houston Grand Opera's new The Marriage of Figaro. We'd seen the full dress rehearsal, upon which I based my review, but I had so much fun seeing it again last night that I wanted to follow up with a few comments.

First, in my opinion there is not a single weak link anywhere in this production. As I'd mentioned, baritone Joshua Hopkins was ill during the dress rehearsal, so studio artist Ben Edquist sang the role of Count Almaviva from the side stage while stage director Ian Rutherford walked the role on stage. This worked perfectly fine for rehearsal purposes, but it was a real treat to see Mr. Hopkins, whose voice and comedic acting skills matched that of the rest of the cast, meld the acting and singing back together.

[Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva; photo by Robert Workman]

Speaking of the acting, this time I took opera glasses with me, and therefore got to enjoy the cast's theatrical skills even more. In particular, soprano Ailyn PĂ©rez, who sang the role of the Countess, has the most beautifully expressive face you can imagine. And seen close-up, tenor Keith Jameson looked and acted even more like a younger, handsomer Danny Bonaduce from The Partridge Family than I remembered, which was perfect for his role as the slimy troublemaker and music teacher Don Basilio.

I took in more overall details this time around too. For instance, at the wedding reception, chorus member Dennis Arrowsmith, wearing some mighty fine 70s duds, goes around taking photographs with a flash camera. Only this time I realized it was a Poloroid, and the guests were mugging for the shots and then shaking the pictures to develop them. Did that ever take me back! I also noticed this time that Barbarina (Purem Jo) and Lauren Snouffer (Cherubino) were clearly meant to be stoned for most of the third and fourth acts. It was obvious, but somehow the first time around I just attributed it to general silliness based on their youth.

The best part, though, was seeing the production with a full house. It's like going to a Star Wars or Harry Potter movie on opening night; half the reason you're there is to enjoy the shared experience with fellow enthusiasts. The audience laughed like crazy, applauded not just the arias but also the Austin Healey, and clearly adored the dance scenes. This time I saw not only the Twist and the Monkey, but also the Macarena.

And the music! I'm still pretty new to the opera, all things considered. I still find a lot of operas just a little too long, and even in Tosca, one of my favorites, there is a particular musical sequence at the beginning that I hate. But The Marriage of Figaro represents the first opera I've seen where I want to go buy a recording and listen to it all the way through multiple times, as opposed to hopping from one favorite part to another. There's not a moment in this opera that isn't musically beautiful. And even though this is a "happy" opera, I completely got shivers during the letter duet this time.

Understandably, HGO was anxious about how this unconventional staging would be received. At the opera talks leading up to the performances, staff members encouraged subscribers to "keep an open mind," and we received e-mails of a similar ilk. Clearly, they did not want the audience going in expecting the usual and being disappointed if they didn't get it.

No more. In the e-mail I just got, reminding me that there's one more performance (Sunday February 7, 2016 at 2:00 p.m.), HGO proudly says "Don’t miss HGO’s groovy production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro!" You go, HGO!

[Purem Jo (far left) as Barbarina, Adam Plachetka (far right) as Figaro, and members of the HGO Chorus; photo by Lynn Lane]

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