Virginia Opera has all the elements of a great ‘Marriage of Figaro’

David A. Beloff - Katherine Whyte (far right) and Aaron St. Clair Nicholson take the stage as tormented lovers in Virginia Opera’s production of "The Marriage of Figaro."

There are so many great moments in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” that can send an audience away happy — a meltingly beautiful “Dove Sono” from a lovelorn Countess, a comic turn or two from an oversexed Cherubino, or even the slapstick antics of duplicity and would-be seduction. What the Virginia Opera offered on Friday, however, in the first of its two performances at the George Mason Center for the Arts was the complete package. Yes, the singing and acting were generally excellent, but add to that outstanding directing, lighting and sets, and this was a production that had to leave its audience delighted.

Director Lillian Groag managed a sure-handed balance between broad comedy and gut-level human emotions. The high silliness was there (the Count dangerously brandishing a long-handled headsman’s ax as he attacked the closet where he thought the page, Cherubino, was hiding; Cherubino shielding his sexual excitement from view with a feathery white clump that doubled as a hat), all this moving rhythmically, with high energy and exquisite comic timing. But in the moments of reflection, a quietness took over. Long silences that suspended time heralded momentous decisions and allowed pathos to speak eloquently.

Stage lighting is often noticed only when it’s bad, but in this production Bradley King has designed a very present and powerful extra dimension to the action — in the first act, when monster shadows cast on the walls by Figaro loom and undulate as he fumes over the Count’s efforts to seduce Susanna, Figaro’s soon-to-be-bride; in the gorgeous glow that suffuses the Countess’s bedroom in Act 2, and in the brilliance that lights up that act’s cacophonous ending. And Peter Dean Beck’s gorgeous and flexible sets themselves became part of the action when a roll-down shade with a mind of its own blocked, first, the Count’s charge into the garden, then his garden view and finally the Count himself from view.

Baritone Matthew Burns and soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird, husband and wife in real life and Figaro and Susanna in Mozart’s world, were ideally cast. Both have lovely voices that are big enough to carry easily over the orchestra but agile enough for Mozartean transparency, and both of them can act. Karin Mushegain managed the trouser roll of Cherubino as convincingly and as delightfully as any I can recall. As the Count, Aaron St. Clair Nicholson had a slow start vocally but warmed to the task, and Katherine Whyte’s Countess, who carried most of the opera’s serious side, did so convincingly if with a broader than ideal vibrato in her big arias. Margaret Gawrysiak’s Marcellina, Drew Duncan’s Don Basilio and Jeffrey Tucker’s Don Bartolo were delightful. And the mute Punch and Judy (or Pulcinella) pair, comic spirits that Groag created to hover over the action were handled masterfully by dancers Levi Hull and Sarah Kingsley.

Steven Smith conducted an orchestra of musicians from the Richmond Symphony that, after a rather ragged overture, settled into an evening of fine ensemble.

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Reinthaler is a freelance writer.

 
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