Sexy, Sparkling Figaro: Portland Opera Repertory Theatre

By G. Paul Padillo

It's hard to believe that a month has passed since I attended our local company's production of "Nozze di Figaro" talk of which is still buzzing about town. I'd not planned on attending, but several friends had gone opening night and said I shouldn't miss it. I attended on closing night (which in this town, means three nights later) and was completely captivated by every aspect of the performance.

I must admit to being slightly discouraged when I looked into the pit to see this production was going to be "slimmed down" by a reduced orchestra - some 38 players in all. Maestro Hangen raised his stick and began the overture ... very quietly and while the pace was not the fastest I've heard (thank God), it was obviously on a brisker course than normal. Once my ears adapted to the scale I realized I was hearing one of the crispest, freshest Figaros in my experience. The orchestral explosions Mozart throws throughout the overture were even more explosive here than with larger forces. While close to perfection, (and so that this doesn't sound like the total rave of an opera-starved madman) there were one or two moments (notably in Act II) where an intonation problem crept in, or the timing between stage and pit was slightly off balance, but these are indeed minor quibbles and the payoff was wonderful.

Another great thing musically about this performance was the abundance of appogiatura and ornamentation used by most of the cast. It was thrilling to hear genuine 18th century vocal style in an opera which is too often robbed of it.

Everything about this production seemed to be geared towards the joyous. Boyd Ostroff's set designs (originally, I believe for The Opera Company of Philadelphia) were stunning on the Merrill stage; tall arabic rococco looking columns which reconfigured to define the playing spaces. The most amazing aspect of the set was the brilliant floor design - a geometrically complex looking design that gave the illusion of a far greater space than is really there. Smashing. Also, the Act IV garden was mind boggling and Jeffrey Koger's lighting really worked beautifully.

Hangen and stage director Dona D. Vaughn had their assignments made much easier by assembling a cast that was nearly perfect in every role. Italian Bass-Baritone Stefano de Peppo was a dream Figaro. With movie star looks, lithe athletic movements, expert comedic skills and a voice that was velvety delicious, the role fits him like the proverbial hand in glove. I understand he will be starring in "Il Barbiere" in Minnesota. I would urge anyone nearby to catch this guy. And to hear a native Italian singer in the role - made the recitativo sections all the more exciting.

Ying Huang - star of the Mitterand "Butterfly" film was made for the role of Susanna. From her energized, barefoot, entrance on, she was sexy, smart, shrewd, and savvy. Huang's soprano has a quick vibrato and while not a large voice by any means, it easily rode over cast and orchestra and is unique enough in timbre that it was always easily distinguished. We cannot avoid the the physical aspect to Ms. Huang - there is no denying that this singer is as hot a dish to come along as I've seen in a long time, making Figaro's jealousy and the Count's desire even more believable than usual.

This Susanna and Figaro were wonderfully high voltage and blessed with both intelligence and eroticism. Indeed, erotic tension was buzzing throughout the entire cast; something Vaughn was able to keep buzzing throughout her cast all evening. She must be given credit for magically keeping everyone just at simmering level and never really allowing anything to blow up or boil over. The entire opera was paced on the fast side, which worked most of the time but certain moments, the famous "Canzonetta sull'aria ... Che sova zeffiretto," for example, seemed overly rushed and one longed for an older, more romanticized style - with a little lingering over the exquisite melodies Mozart gave Susanna and the Countess.

Ah, the Countess! Alexandra Deshorties. Although, I was a little put off initially, with "Porgi, Amor," - the pacing seemed just a tad off and I didn't quite know what to make of it. This is a tall, elegant young woman who fit in nicely to the Victoria's Secret looking Act II opening - clouds and skies filling the windows and a breathtaking lighting job by Jeffrey Koger. The voice reminded me of another singer, but I couldn't put my finger on it ... Schwarzkopf? Nope. Jurinac? Nuh uh. It wouldn't come to me. There was a "hollow" quality to it that I found oddly attractive, and distinctive. Then came the recitativo sections and it scared the heck out of me. This sounded very much like what I would imagine Callas would sound like in a complete Mozart role. This spooky occurrence reminded me of a dozen or so years ago when Nelly Miriciou, as Manon made think Callas was singing the role.

Although I admit to a bit of disappointment with "Porgi, Amor," in complete contrast, "Dove sono" was one of the musical highlights of the evening and garnered an enormous ovation that brought down the house.

Marguerite Krull was a delight as Cherubino and the Act I chair "bit" has seldom been funnier. Both arias were beautifully sung (with ample appogiatora) and enthusiastically received.

Keeping with the theme of good looks and lovely voices, I found Michael Chioldi's Count to be a little colder and crueler than usual. This worked tremendously to his favor. His Count was a spoiled, handsome, younger than usual aristocrat, who sort of became the "bad guy" merely by default. He seemed genuinely ignorant as to what an ass he really was. His intolerance when added to his rage created a dimension which was palpably fearful, unlike the too often baffoonish mock anger we're "treated" to in most operatic comedies. It made his final "coming around" all the more tender, beautiful and moving when he realized just how much he truly loved his Rosina.

I can't recall 100%, but I'm pretty certain when I saw Figaro in pre-surtitle days, nobody laughed at the Count's line "Contessa perdono!" ... and now audiences seem to find that exquisitely beautiful line something to just roar in laughter at. Anyone have any idea as to why?

The remaining cast: Kathryn Cowdrick as Marcellina; Reggie Bonnin as Antonio; Ray Karns as Bartolo, Matthew Surapine as Don Basilio; Jeffrey Picon as Don Curzio and Carolyne Eberhardt as Barbarina - were all up to the standards set by the rest of the cast, all fitting neatly into place helping flesh out this Figaro into a true ensemble opera.

While this was an evening that belonged to every member of this tight ensemble, I must single out both de Peppo and Huang for performances that I will carry with me forever. They were certainly, vocally, dramatically and visually, one of the sexiest couples to sing this exquisite music.

My hat is off to Maestro Hangen and the Portland Opera Repertory Theatre for yet another truly memorable, world class evening of opera. Looking forward to next season's *Faust.*

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