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Portland Flaunts an Eye-catching 'Figaro,' Theater

By Ellen Pfeifer, Boston Globe

PORTLAND, Maine - The first-time visitor from Boston to the Merrill Auditorium has to feel a certain envy and chagrin when confronted with the handsome, acoustically pleasing, comfortably designed theater that serves this city for opera, ballet, musical theater, and concerts. The 1,900-seat auditorium - which occupies part of City Hall - was renovated in 1997 and offers exactly the kind of venue Boston lacks. Which raises the old question: Why can't Boston get its act together and create such a performing facility for itself?

The occasion for the visit was the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre's eye-filling production of "The Marriage of Figaro," the mainstage event in its current FigaroFest. Under the artistic direction of conductor and company founder Bruce Hangen, the festival's various events should encourage considerable appreciation of Pierre Beaumarchais, the great French pre-revolutionary playwright, his several pathbreaking Figaro plays, and the various musical settings of those works.

For the opera, set designer Boyd Ostroffhas created elegant and expensive-looking stage pictures comprising boudoirs, antechambers, and gardens. Gail Csoboth has dressed the characters with equal richness - the Countess's silken pink-and-white peignoir set being particularly luscious.

In their casting, Hangen and stage director Dona D. Vaughn took particular care to engage singers who were appropriate physical types and ages for the characters they play. So the Count and Countess are still quite young - perhaps not much older than Susanna and Figaro, while Bartolo, Marcellina, Basilio, and Alfonso the gardener all look to be considerably more mature. Vaughn has created a tightly knit ensemble in which the sum of the parts is probably greater than the individual contributions.

Of particular interest to opera buffs was the performance of Susanna by the Chinese soprano Ying Huang, who portrayed the title role in the Frederic Mitterand film "Madame Butterfly." Diminutive and extremely pretty, she has a voice of similar size and quality. Her Susanna was appealing for the physical energy and feistiness she brought to the character. Her Figaro, Stefano de Peppo, offered a rather generic, although not unlikable, portrayal of the servant who is always one step ahead of his master. His singing voice, attractive in the lower reaches, lost tone and quality in the higher elevations. Michael Chioldi played the Count as something of a dim bulb, good-looking but not too bright, with a rather woolly sounding baritone. His Countess, Alexandra Deshorties, was considerably more hot-blooded and hot-tempered than one usually sees. She engaged in seductive teasing of the libidinous page, Cherubino, and in her quarrels with the Count she was anything but a doormat. She sang both "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono" with great intensity of expression and beauty of tone. And Marguerite Krull as Cherubino endeared herself to the audience with her boyish charm and vibrant singing voice.

Hangen led the well-rehearsed and accomplished orchestra with a firm hand and considerable dramatic pizazz.

This story ran on page D3 of the Boston Globe on 8/1/2001. ┬ęCopyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company.

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