By Ted AYALA
Before I begin this review, let’s just get one thing straight. As of the moment I’m typing this, only two opera companies in all of the Greater Los Angeles area dare to perform opera as a living art: Long Beach Opera and the up-and-coming Pacific Opera Project.
With all due respect to the Los Angeles Opera and the impressive talents, both on and behind the stage that form the heart of the company, to say nothing of its impressive financial resources, a night at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion can sometimes be a staid experience. Immaculately groomed, fastidiously posed, life-like but somehow not quite alive – it can seem a bit like a trip to Madame Tussauds in Hollywood. Or the morgue. The youngest composer on this season’s Los Angeles Opera schedule has been dead now for close to a century. Is that embalming fluid I smell?
Of course, the composer performed on Friday by Pacific Opera Project at Portico’s Art Space in Pasadena has been dead for an even longer time. But they managed to adroitly underline the timeless relevance of both music and plot with a sense of zaniness and danger rarely displayed by their tony downtown colleagues.
“The Marriage of Figaro” by way of “Scarface,” with a dash of “Goodfellas.” I can already hear the pulse of some of the more traditional-minded opera fans out there growing faint. But hold on to your monocle. The production actually worked. Neither libretto nor music were harmed in the making and performance of the opera.
Lorenzo da Ponte’s wry sardonic wit and deeply felt observations of human nature – given just a twist of contemporary pop humor – and the tender vulnerability of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s music were still their ebullient selves. The aforementioned pop humor might make some out there cringe at the thought. Indeed, the manner in which other companies often clumsily attempt it can indeed be cringe-worthy. But while laughs there definitely were, these weren’t manufactured at the expense of the libretto. It was, in its way, a kind of period performance tactic: restoring to today’s listeners the humor that the listeners of da Ponte and Mozart’s day would have found themselves in the work, which is replete with topical humor from those days.
Watching the opera acted out in gaudy silk shirts and crocodile skin shoes, as opposed to powdered wigs and buckled shoes, brought a sense of the now to the music that we sometimes forget – and laid bare the sweet melancholy of the opera’s later moments all the more powerfully.
Along that cord did the uniformly excellent cast thread themselves, carefully casting light on the foibles and dreams of its all too human characters.
LeRoy Villanueva, as Figaro, exuded equal parts confidence and warmth, demonstrating an attractively piquant humor which was best heard in the “Non più andrai” aria that closes Act I. His Susanna, sung by Katherine Giaquinto, matched him in warmth while the creamy top of her voice took a bit of the bitchy edge off of her character.
Daniel Scofield as Count Almaviva was also fine; his voice revealing the character’s constant fits of anger to be nothing but good-natured bluster. The hormonal, cocky Cherubino of Elizabeth Rigby Jones was an audience hit as was the nutty Bartolo of E. Scott Levin. The minor role of Don Curzio was filled by the liquid tenor of Jon Lee Keenan in a bit of inspired luxury casting.
The orchestral part was necessarily reduced given the small size of the venue. Aside from the loss of trumpet and timpani, the ensemble, playing the music one to a part and led by Stephen Karr, navigated the score deftly. Karr also played the harpsichord continuo, gauzing his part with a patina of mordant drollery.
Another four performances of “The Marriage of Figaro” are remaining in this run, followed by Pacific Opera Project’s production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “The Mikado” in September. Early next year they’re scheduled to collaborate with Los Angeles Opera in Benjamin Britten’s grim chamber opera, “The Turn of the Screw.” Let’s hope some of the impetuous vigor of the younger group rubs off on the Dorothy Chandler’s house company.
**A correction was made online from the original published paper. Stephen Karr is the correct spelling of the name. ****