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The recent production of Wolfgang Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” had many unusual aspects to it, but the strength of Pierre Beaumarchais’ original play, Lorenzo da Ponte’s skillful adaptation, as well as Mozart’s glorious music won the day. By the last acts of this performance those qualities which have delighted audiences for over two centuries triumphed, to give a final positive impression. This production had showings on April 5, 7 and 9.

The visual aspects of the production were supposed to evoke “a fusion of ancient Rome with the Napoleonic neoclassical and a hint of modern flair for good measure.”

I am quoting from the plot summary by the costume designer, Taylor Pfenning. The leap from ancient Rome to Napoleon suggests that we are seeing the classical and the neoclassical at the same time ... a tall order. The stage design did have some suggestions of Roman columns.

What was most striking about Pfenning’s take on the singers’ costumes was that the costumes were intended to evoke a wide range of characters from contemporary pop culture to famous authors of the past such as Jane Austen. Many of the modern references were unknown to me, but I was surprised to learn that the costume for Barbarina, a minor character, was intended to evoke a “fun mixture” of [Vladimir Nabokov’s] “Lolita, and Jane Austen’s Kitty Bennet,” a cultural leap of almost cosmic dimensions. The result of those flights of fancy was an unusual array of costumes, sometimes suited to the status and actions of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s characters and sometimes not. In my opinion, the Count and Countess in the later acts were well costumed, Cherubino and Figaro, less so, throughout.

An eccentric decision by stage director Nathan Gunn was to highlight the social distinction between the servants and their masters by having Susanna and Figaro sing in English to each other while, on other occasions, they and the upper classes sang in Italian. Sounds good, but in actual effect, almost unnoticeable. Susanna and Figaro have only a handful of lines exclusively together, and let’s face it, it is hard to decide what language opera singers are singing in anyway.

In the opening acts, the stress was on sight gags, and this resulted in comic actions in the backgrounds that distracted from the musical impact of the arias being performed. As usual with “concept” productions, by the time the original plot picks up speed, one tends to ignore the “message” being imposed on the original opera, and to just sit back and ... enjoy.

The general level of singing and acting by the student cast was quite high. Shayne Piles as Figaro performed his arias with strong voice, but he could have given the mercurial character of Figaro a more animated effect. Viveca Andres Richards as Susanna performed with winning vivacity and idiomatic vocal style. Jamille Lea Brewster as the Countess Almaviva expressed well the deeper side of the character in the arias “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono.” Salvatore Cono Castronovo’s portrayal of the predatory Count Almaviva gained strength in Act III. His singing of the vengeance aria “Vedro mentr’io sospiro” was one of the vocal high points of the evening. Thereza Lituma as Cherubino sang that character’s arias with conviction, and her leap into the garden in Act II brought one of loudest laughs of the night. Salvador Lopez-Portillo got delighted laughter from the audience with his camp portrayal as Marcellina, which featured almost every stereotype of female behavior known to man.

The minor roles were effectively played by Kennedy Ortmeier as Barbarina, Jason Pandelidis as Basilio, Maurice William Fields III as Curzio, Xiaoyi Zha as Bartolo, and Nathan Tilton as Antonio.

Mozart’s great ensembles profited by the stage direction of Nathan Gunn and the clear conducting of Andrew Megill and the fine playing of the UI student instrumentalists. Scenic Designer Kat Blakeslee gave us a lovely, perhaps Spanish, landscape for Act III, and lighting designer Gillian Frame added a note of contemporary pop style (MTV?) with flashy lighting changes during arias.

By the time the Count pleads “Contessa, perdono” from his wife at the end of Act IV, this listener and the audience had been won over, and the singers and performers were greeted with cheers.

John Frayne hosts ‘Classics of the Phonograph’ on Saturdays at WILL-FM and, in retirement, teaches at the UI. He can be reached at frayne@illinois.edu.

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