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Mozart's genius for creating effervescent scores can lead music lovers to forget the barely suppressed social turmoil in the literary source librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte used for the composer's opera Le Nozze di Figaro (1786). The main characters Count Almaviva, Figaro, Rosina (later Countess Almaviva), Don Bartolo, and Don Basilio appear in at least the first two plays in Pierre Beaumarchais's (1732-99) trilogy Le Barbier de Séville, Le Marriage de Figaro, and La Mère Coupable. Almost everyone will be familiar with Rossini's 1816 setting of the first play and interactions between the characters are carried over in to Mozart/Da Ponte's setting of the second play. This second play, with its strong satire against the aristocracy, was banned by Louis XVI until 1784, just two years before the premiere of Mozart's Le Nozze. It is important to remember, according to Spike Hughes in Famous Mozart Operas, "Mozart himself approached Da Ponte with the idea of making an opera out of Beaumarchais' Le Marriage de Figaro.” Piedmont Opera's director, Steven LaCosse, emphasized this undercurrent in his dynamic and lively production.
Conductor James Albritten led members of the Winston-Salem Symphony in a bubbly and spirited account of Mozart's masterful score, keeping tight coordination with the complex stage activities of the fine ensemble of singer-actors. The level of vocalism of the cast was high, ranging from good to superb, while the level of individual and ensemble acting was unusually high. I have seen and reviewed more productions of Le Nozze than I can recall but Piedmont Opera's set, designed by Wally Colberg and Craig Saeger courtesy of Tri-Cities Opera Company, Inc. is one of the most attractive and effective I have seen. The excellent costumes were designed by Susan Benson. The wigs and makeup were very well designed by Martha Ruskai. Lighting was very impressive, especially in the multiple couples-in-disguise scene in the last act.
Three of the male characters stood out because of the unusually strong and well-rounded quality of their vocalism and vivid characterizations. Baritone Mark Waters, as Count Almaviva, made an unusually strong adversary for his servants. His considerable stage presence was combined with a solidly supported voice that had a lovely warm tone. Highlights were his flirtatious duet with Susana, "Crudel, perchè finora" (Oh, why are you so cruel), and his vexed aria "Vedrò mentr'io sospiro" (Must I forgo my Pleasure). As Figaro, bass-baritone Brian Banion's robust and even timbre conveyed a wide range of emotions, such as anger at the Count's designs upon Susana in "Se vuol ballare" (If you are after a little amusement), or heartbreak at Susana's supposed unfaithfulness in "Aprite un po' quegli'occhi" (You fools you are and will be). Banion's shaking the Count's wig during "se vuol ballare" recalled what Aunt Augusta, in Oscar Wilde's The Importance of Being Ernest, called "the worst excesses of the French Revolution." CVNC had reviewed Banion as Leporello in the Günter Krämer production of Mozart's Don Giovanni for the 2005 Spoleto Festival USA. Marvin Kehler, a Master of Music degree candidate at the A. J. Fletcher Opera Institute, was outstanding in the dual roles of Don Basilio, the corrupt and gossiping music master, and the brief role of the stuttering notary Don Curizo. Kehler's even and mellow tenor was truly a luxury in these character parts.
A superficial similarity in appearance between sopranos Karin Wolverton as the Countess Almaviva and Alicia Berneche as Susana made their exchange of clothes in Act IV more dramatically believable than usual. Both voices struck me as being brighter than most I have heard in these two roles but were more than satisfactory otherwise. The Countess' aria "Porgi amor" (God of love) is considered one of the most taxing entrances for any soprano and Wolverton conveyed her anguish over the loss of her husband's love with eloquent simplicity. Her delivery of the Countess' great aria, "Dove sono" (I remember days long gone), was breathtaking. Alicia Berneche made a spunky Susana who was not afraid to coarsen her voice for dramatic effect such as expressing Susana's anger toward the Count's unwanted attentions or her fury when she thinks Figaro has given in to Marcellina's breech of promise suit. Berneche's letter duet with the Countess, "Che soave zeffiretto" (Evening breezes), was exquisite. Mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote gave a solid performance as Cherubino, the adolescent boy whose unregulated hormones cause him to fall in love with every woman. Her singing of "Non so più cosa son" (I don't know what I am) and of Cherubino's song for the Countess, "Voi che sapete" (You who know what love is), was delightful.
The role of the old maid Marcellina was strongly acted and sung by mezzo-soprano Cristy Lynn Brown. Baritone Leonard Rowe gave a solid performance as Don Bartolo and his vigorous singing of his aria, "La vendetta" (Now for vengeance), recalled events from the first Beaumarchais play in which Figaro helped Count Almaviva elope with Bartolo's ward and her fortune. This production combined and integrated solid vocalism and consistent characterization leading to a performance greater than the sum of its parts.