A new opera house made its debut last night in Northern Virginia and performed even better than the previews and auditions had indicated. The new Center for the Arts at George Mason University is not yet problem-free, but its problems now are logistical, not artistic. As an opera house, it is on a par with the Eisenhower Theater, somewhat better than the Kennedy Center Opera House and second only to the Terrace Theater, which is one of the world's best, but no longer used for opera.
The Center for the Arts' capabilities for variety shows, pops, chamber music and orchestral concerts have already been explored since its opening in October, but its first operatic presentation, last night, was a splendidly staged and mostly well-sung "Marriage of Figaro," performed by the New York City Opera National Company, a touring ensemble that will perform the same opera Jan. 28 at Montgomery College.
Last night's audience at GMU enjoyed itself thoroughly, responding to the show's fast-paced series of disguises, deceptions, people lurking in hiding places, swapping identities and generally conspiring to trick the lecherous Count Almaviva. The laughter was particularly strong in Act 3, when Figaro discovers that Marcellina, who has been suing him for breach of promise, is actually his long-lost mother, and in the last act during the intricate maneuvers that lead to Almaviva trying to seduce his wife under the illusion that she is someone else. But the response was strong throughout, partly thanks to the succinct, lucid surtitles but largely because of the adept stage direction of Joseph Loschiavo.
There were moments when the staging became static -- notably in the Countess's "Porgi, amor" ("Grant, O Love") at the beginning of Act 2 and "Voi che sapete" ("You who know"), sung by Cherubino a few minutes later.
Cherubino, sung by Encarnacion Vazquez, was a generally lively character and richly comic when hiding behind a chair, trying to pass as a very awkward young woman or escaping from a compromising situation through a second-story window. So perhaps the static pose in this love song was a part of the characterization, a token of shyness. It could work that way, but a few notes slightly off-pitch in the same aria would be carrying characterization too far. In any case, Vazquez had these problems only momentarily in a performance that was, on the whole, delightful.
Carla Connors stood out as Susanna -- particularly in her elegant "Deh, vieni, non tardar" ("O come, do not delay"). Kevin Short, as Figaro, was equally agile in mind and body, constantly popping into and out of trouble, and vocally impressive, notably in the brilliant "Non piu andrai" ("You'll go no more") and the anguished "Aprite un po' quegli occhi" ("Men, open up your eyes"). Joan Tirrell was richly comic, in her body language even more than her voice, in the role of Marcellina, and Carole Latimer was charming in the tiny role of Barbarina.
Richard Byrne was acceptable if not outstanding as the Count; Laurinda Nikkel's acting was rather static and her voice sometimes problematic in the role of the Countess. She improved as the evening went on; her intonation problems in "Porgi, amor" were tamed to occasional, slight edginess in "Dove sono" ("Where are the good moments") and eliminated entirely in the letter duet. If she is not suffering from a cold, she should try warming up longer before her next performance.
Robert Ferrier and David Ronis performed well as Bartolo and Basilio and Steven Paul Aiken gave a good portrayal of the drunken gardener Antonio. The chorus looked and sounded good; the orchestra had occasional intonation problems and sometimes got ahead of the singers, but William Robertson's conducting was generally well paced and balanced. Peter Dean Beck's set designs were exactly right, evoking the distinctive flavor of Seville.
In many ways, however, the star of the evening was the Center for the Arts, a beautifully designed and well-equipped auditorium. I sat in two locations during various acts of this production -- places where acoustic problems or restricted sightlines are most likely to be a bother -- and found this auditorium outstanding on both counts. It also has a pleasant atmosphere, in the lobby as well as the auditorium, but it still has problems of traffic control indoors and out.
Last night, a half-hour before the performance began, there was a traffic jam en route to George Mason University, beginning in downtown Fairfax and running right up to and through the overflowing parking lots, which are a good walk away from the center.
A basketball game in the same time frame complicated the situation last night, but no excuse can justify the long delays that were suffered by some patrons. Indoors, the restrooms developed too-long waiting lines during intermission. It would be a shame if logistical problems such as these were to reduce the impact of a generally well-designed performing arts center that has had some brilliant programming in its first season.