Review: UK Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro

Cherubino (Ellen Graham), Figaro (Daniel Koehn), Susanna (Elizabeth Maurey), the Count (Thomas Gunther), and Basilio (Zackery Morris) in UK Opera Theatre's production of "The Marriage of Figaro." (c) Photos by Phillip Groshang for UK Opera Theatre.

Cherubino (Ellen Graham), Figaro (Daniel Koehn), Susanna (Elizabeth Maurey), the Count (Thomas Gunther), and Basilio (Zackery Morris) in UK Opera Theatre’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (c) Photos by Phillip Groshang for UK Opera Theatre.

Last Fall’s record-breaking, eye-popping production of The Phantom of the Opera put the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre in the spotlight as an organization capable of putting on a really big show.

This semester’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro puts the focus on the University of Kentucky’s singers, and it proves to be as satisfying a night, even without the chandelier and the boat.

To be sure, Richard Kagey’s production is a much simpler affair than his Phantom. But it is also what Marriage or many other Mozart operas need to be: charming.

For all its vaunted status as one of the most performed operas in the world – some surveys put it at No. 1 – and a musical masterpiece, Figaro is at its core a silly little love story led by opera’s merry prankster, Figaro.

Susanna (Elizabeth Maurey) and Figaro (Daniel Koehn) in UK Opera Theatre's production of "The Marriage of Figaro."

Susanna (Elizabeth Maurey) and Figaro (Daniel Koehn) in UK Opera Theatre’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

In the opening night performance of the opera, which is double cast, Daniel Koehn made the role look as easy as it needs to be with his smooth baritone buoyantly romping through some palace intrigue.

As the title suggests, it is Figaro’s wedding day, but before he marries to his beloved Susanna, plays will be made for both of their affections, and there will be other mixing and matching of couples.

Mozart’s music is considered great for young singers as it develops key parts of the voice without stretching it to places it is not ready to go. UK has presented Mozart’s work in its undergraduate studio shows to great success, but here it seems to have opened up the main stage to more undergrads than usual.

Between this and Phantom, 2012-13 seems to be the year of the undergrad at UK Opera, no one benefiting more than Elizabeth Maurey as Susanna, fresh off a turn as one of the three Christines in Phantom. Here, the threats are far less ominous and the music is more sprite, giving Maurey a chance to play and show a very natural comic style. Through three hours and 15 minutes, we get to really enjoy her and Figaro (who in the other cast is played by undergrad Phillip Bullock) as a happy couple we know will come out on top.

Their main challenge is the Count, who we were actually ro0ting for in Giacomo Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, to which Figaro is a sequel (though it was actually written 30 years earlier).  Then, Figaro was helping the Count was pursue the lovely Rosina. Now, he has grown tired of Rosina and has set his sights on Susanna, and apparently any other female in his home.

This is not necessarily a show-stealing role, but Thomas Gunther comes close as he is constantly schemes and gets thwarted like Wile E. Coyote. Though he’s creepy, it’s hard to hate him as he brilliantly sings his Act II-opening aria, Hai già vinta la causa … Vedrò mentr’io sospiro.

Susanna (Elizabeth Maurey) and Cherubino (Ellen Graham) in UK Opera Theatre's production of "The Marriage of Figaro."

Susanna (Elizabeth Maurey) and Cherubino (Ellen Graham) in UK Opera Theatre’s production of “The Marriage of Figaro.”

This production also confirms that mezzo-soprano Ellen Graham can sing pants roles brilliantly, as she also did as Prince Orlofsky in the 2010 production of Die Fledermaus. Here, she is every bit the lovestruck teenage boy Cherubino, and with her gorgeous Act II rendition of Voi che sapete che cosa è amor to the countess, it’s a wonder this does not become a bit of an 18th century Cougar Town.

Kagey’s production makes this opera seem that contemporary, despite its 227 years, as there seems to have been a broad mandate to have fun with it. He aids his own cause with a stage design that is in stark contrast to the complexity of his Phantom set. But it works brilliantly as a variety of locales on a pink and blue checkerboard raked platform and two doors, with several quick changes of backdrop and furniture.

And under John Nardolillo’s baton, the University of Kentucky Symphony Orchestra, fresh off playing Wagner with Christine Brewer, is as crisp as ever, giving this show another dash of exactly what it needs.

The evening was buoyed with the pre-show announcement that UK Opera director Everett McCorvey has withdrawn his name from consideration for dean of the College of Music Theatre, and Dance at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and will stay at UK.

UK’s Marriage is not the behemoth of last fall’s blockbuster. But it shows how the program got to the point it could produce shows like Phantom, by consistently staging solid productions like this.

This production continues at 2 and 7 p.m. March 2 and 7 p.m. March 3. Several stars of this production are winners of the Alltech Vocal Scholarship Auditions. This year’s auditions are at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Singletary Center for the Arts.

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