The Bethesda Summer Music Festival, now in its 11th year, is a two-week opera-training program for young singers. Begun as an offshoot of the Asian American Music Society, it now presents two staged productions (mostly double-cast) and two other concerts, with daily public master classes. Saturday’s performance of “Le nozze di Figaro” had many factors working against it — musical and structural — but nonetheless offered fleeting pleasures.
Trying to maneuver around the two large pulpits of the Bethesda Presbyterian Church, the earnest cast did its best to convey a sense of the interior and exterior spaces of the action. The score was cut right and left, beginning with the overture (already one of Mozart’s shortest), including all the choral numbers and several arias for the secondary characters; the first two acts were thus disposed of in 75 minutes.
The singers were, of course, at varying levels of talent and development; certainly the vocal standout was Emily Reily as the Countess. Although as an actress she cut a matronly and not terribly sympathetic figure, and got lost briefly in “Dove sono,” her voice was still the one unalloyed musical pleasure of the evening, filling the church with beauty. Grace Gilday as Susanna was pert and natural in the role; her voice was substantially thinner, but “Deh vieni, non tardar” was delivered stylishly. Jose Sacin’s voice is healthy, but it doesn’t soar, and it needs better support when singing softly. His big Act III number, “Vedro mentr’io sospiro,” was very well done, however. In the title role, Joseph Pleuss worked hard but sometimes too hard (like doing push-ups while singing “Non piu andrai”). He is more of a “singing actor” at this stage, with a decent but uneven voice. And Figaro should have poise and cunning above all; Pleuss mugged like a sitcom character. Amy Loudin’s voice was simply not up to the role of Cherubino, struggling with intonation all evening. In the smaller parts, Felix Polendey and Erica Marie Ferguson impressed the most, with crisp acting and well-contained singing.
The biggest problem with amateur opera productions is always the orchestra, in this case a string quartet plus piano. The many ensemble problems, even with so few players, were the inevitable result of inadequate rehearsal. It costs money to have good instrumentalists in sufficient quantity, booked for enough rehearsal to render the score somewhat as the composer intended, and these shoestring companies never have enough. I don’t have any answers, but for me, one place to try cost-shifting would be the projected surtitles. We all got along fine without them for centuries, and as this production demonstrated, they can confuse as much as inform.
Battey is a freelance writer.