Everything that makes opera work – fine singer-actors, sensitive dramatic and musical direction, and evocative sets – came together in Virginia Opera's production of Mozart's Le Nozze de Figaro, seen in Richmond's Landmark Theater on February 26. This was the last of nine performances that had begun with five in Norfolk, the company's home base, followed by two each in Fairfax and the state's capital. Conductor Dan Saunders led the first seven, and the last two were under the baton of Assistant Artistic Director and Conductor Joseph Walsh. For this production, members of the Virginia Symphony Orchestra filled the pit.
Across the board, from major roles to minor ones, there were no weak members in the cast. The singers' vocal production was excellent. and the words were clearly enunciated and readily projected in the 3667-seat hall. Baritone Michael Todd Simpson was formidable as Count Almaviva. He is tall and robust, and his mercurial temperament switched instantly from smoldering lust for Susanna to barely contained jealous rage at the slightest hint of suspicion about his wife. His focused and firmly projected voice has a pleasing timbre, and he has stage presence in spades. Luckily, the vocal color and lower range of the Figaro – bass-baritone Joshua Winograde – provided a clear contrast to his master; both have similar physiques. Winograde fully conveyed Figaro's affection for his wife-to-be and his restrained resentment of his master's lechery, and he convincingly demonstrated his character's ability to improvise schemes on the fly. Jane Redding combined an even and pure soprano with subtle inflections and refined use of facial expressions in the role of Figaro's fiancée, Susannah. The neglected and sorely-tested Countess was Patricia Andress, whose more heavily weighted soprano voice contrasted nicely with that of her servant and confidant. Andress fully portrayed her character's anguish with carefully nuanced recitatives leading to emotionally-charged arias. Mezzo-soprano Giavanni Kersulis was unusually convincing in the pants role of Cherubino, the adolescent with the raging hormones. She had been carefully coached about male body language and was totally believable as a "he," whether portraying the youth or as a male trying to move like a woman when in drag in the middle of Act II and briefly in Act III.
The secondary characters were strongly cast, with no over-the-hill singers or musically marginal character actors. For example, in many productions, the lines of the drunken gardener, Antonio, aren't really sung, but here, bass-baritone Daniel C. Webb did so without falling back on belches and slurred speech. Soprano Kimberly Markham brought lovely, bright, and even tone and eye-catching form to the role of Barbarina, the gardener's niece and one of the objects of Cherubino's affections. She also doubled as one of two country girls who sing a duet to the Count and Countess in Act III; her partner was soprano Rita Addico-Cohen, whose even and warm-toned voice had impressed earlier this season in Treemonisha at Wake Forest University. Olindo Marseglia added a smarmy quality to his fine, mellow tenor as he portrayed the supercilious Don Basilio to perfection. Scott Wyatt has a strong resume of major tenor roles but readily combined 'tics" and stuttering as Don Curzio, the lawyer. Mezzo-soprano Geneviève Després brought fine comedic timing and a voice with a lovely, even tone color to the role of Marcellina. As Dr. Bartolo, bass-baritone Terry Hodges added an almost heroic ring to his aria "La vendetta" as he savored getting revenge against Figaro for scuttling his past designs on his ward and her fortune.
How gratifying it was to see a traditional staging of Le Nozze! There were no jarring anachronisms or foisting of outrages solely to build a reputation. This was an impressive company debut for director Lorna Haywood who had been an acclaimed singing actress earlier in her career. One of her roles was that of the Countess, and this showed in her thoughtful blocking and pacing of Andress' part, including the recitative and aria "Dove sono." Some directors try to force the seeds of social revolution into the scene at the end of Act I, when the chorus, singing the Count's praises, leaves the stage miming resentment. This is not in Mozart's music, and it was a winning small touch to see that Haywood kept the peasants' mood in harmony with the score. No stage business drew attention away from the focus of any scene. Bravo!
The four stage sets, designed by Peter Dean Beck and skillfully lit by Kenneth Steadman, were excellent. Act I was an unused room needing a fix-up, while Act II was a French-style lady's boudoir. The more formal public room of Act III was readily tweaked to suggest a garden for Act IV.