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At George Mason, An Expert Cast Propels 'Figaro'

By Mark J. Estren
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, February 20, 2006

Virginia Woolf described Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" as "the perfection of music, and the vindication of opera." And Johannes Brahms said, "Every number in 'Figaro' is for me a marvel."

Virginia Opera's glittering production is a marvel, too, letting the plot's schemes and counter-schemes illuminate the endearingly flawed characters. At George Mason University's Center for the Arts on Friday night, everything ran like clockwork, powered by Artistic Director Peter Mark's assemblage of unusually good-looking, highly talented singers -- there was not a single weak voice.

Mozart and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte decided to work from the second play of a subtly revolutionary trilogy by Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais in 1786 because the first, "The Barber of Seville," had brought operatic box-office success to Giovanni Paisiello in 1782 (Rossini's much more famous version dates to 1816; the trilogy's melodramatic conclusion, "The Guilty Mother," was not set to music until Darius Milhaud's 1966 opera).

Downplaying Beaumarchais' critiques of the French monarchy, Mozart created an exuberant ensemble piece in which, ideally, no singer tries to outshine the others. Virginia Opera captured this spirit perfectly.

Joshua Winograde was a tall, stately, dark-voiced Figaro with more than a hint of temper and temperament. Michael Todd Simpson was his superb foil as Count Almaviva, even taller than Winograde, with a powerful voice and a surprising level of vulnerability, not just vengefulness, in "Vedro mentr'io sospiro."

Jane Redding, her voice clear and strong, was a nearly perfect Susanna, equal parts froth, flirtatiousness and pluck. Patricia Andress complemented her beautifully as the Countess, getting the plaintive but less-than-tragic remorse of "Dove sono" just right.

Giavanna Kersulis was bright and athletic in the show-stopping trouser role of Cherubino.

Genevieve Despres was an unusually multifaceted Marcellina. Terry Hodges gave surprising depth to Dr. Bartolo, and Daniel Webb played the drunken gardener, Antonio, to the hilt.

Dan Saunders conducted with mostly brisk tempos and meticulous attention to orchestral detail.

And Lorna Haywood's stage direction was outstanding, from the subtle blowing of a French door's curtain to the Gilbert and Sullivan-like handling of the septet at the end of Act 2.

"All these people flew about in sheer delight to the music of my 'Figaro,' " wrote Mozart from Prague in 1787. Virginia Opera's performers did not fly -- except for Cherubino through that French door -- but sheer delight was exactly what this "Figaro" delivered.

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