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Review: Summerfest's 'Marriage of Figaro' satisfying production

| Sunday, July 12, 2015, 3:06 p.m.
Katarzyna Wilk and baritone Michael Scarcelle as Susanna and Figaro in Act 1 of Summerfest's production of 'The Marriage of Figaro,' which will be repeated on July 19 and Aug. 1.
Summerfest
Katarzyna Wilk and baritone Michael Scarcelle as Susanna and Figaro in Act 1 of Summerfest's production of 'The Marriage of Figaro,' which will be repeated on July 19 and Aug. 1.

The fourth season of Summerfest opened July 10 at Oakland's Twentieth Century Club with a joyous production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” The opera is a miracle of felicitous invention that, in a worthy production such as Summerfest is presenting, tickles the spirits and warms the hearts of listeners.

Jonathan Eaton, the company's artistic director and stage director for this production, is a past master of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's comic masterpiece. The new production differs in specific details from his earlier stagings I've seen, but shares with them a profound affinity for Mozart's dramatic language.

The cast of young singers and pick-up orchestra were led with wonderfully Mozartean style by Walter Morales. The Overture was crisp and ebullient, but, then, this performance never lacked energy. More impressive still was Morales' responsiveness to Mozart's lyricism, and especially the sensitivity with which he handled instrumental answers to vocal lines.

The excellent cast was drawn from winners of the Mildred Miller International Voice Competition and its overseas extension, Summerfest Europe.

Polish soprano Katarzyna Wilk and American baritone Michael Scarcelle were immensely appealing as Susanna and Figaro. They are servants of Count Almaviva, whose maneuvers to assert an old aristocratic privilege for sex with her before her wedding is the dramatic crux of the opera. It unites the clever servants with the Countess in a plan to defeat him.

Wilk's spirited portrayal of Susanna was heartfelt and nicely gauged — loving without being too sweet and with plenty of spirit when she's agitated. Her voice has a fine graininess and creates lines with genuine arch.

Scarcelle's light baritone was well suited to Figaro. Susanna may be smarter than Figaro, but he's shrewd and practical, too. Scarcelle's defiant “If you want to dance, I'll play the tune” aria about the Count's advances had just the right amount of forcefulness.

Chad Armstrong was full of bluster as the Count asserting himself, but also adept at responding to frustrations that arise at every turn.

Adriana Velinova was thoroughly persuasive as the Countess, a role with more aristocratic grace than the Count. Although she began with more vibrato than is ideal for Mozart, she sang with increasing purity as the opera progressed and was superb in the denouement.

Chelsea Melamed, originally from California, was as delightful as one hopes for Cherubino, a teenager in love with love and seemingly every woman he encounters, including the Countess. Her first-act aria, “I don't know what I am,” captured the breathless perfection of Mozart's portrayal of adolescent emotions, although Melamed's tone was too fluttery for my taste. But her boyish enthusiasm lifted every scene in which she appeared.

Eaton's staging made the most of all the big scenes, including Mozart's favorite — the recognition scene for six voices in Act 3. Until that point, an older woman, Marcellina, claims the right to marry Figaro according to the contract of a loan he has not repaid. In the recognition scene, everyone is surprised to learn Figaro is Marcellina's son, who had been kidnapped as a baby.

Jessica Hiltabidle and Jeremy Galyon as Mozart's parents, Marcellina and Bartolo, were presented as younger and more vital than they usually are. So, too, was Isaiah Feken as Antonio, the gardener. Galyon and Feken were bigger physically and with more vocal heft than these roles are usually cast. Rafael Helbig-Kostka brought a charmingly fey quality to Basilio.

Eaton's superb sense of dramatic timing also made the final scene work exceptionally well. The count is caught trying to seduce a woman he thinks is Susanna but is actually his wife in disguise. With everyone watching, he repents. The countess forgives him because, as she sings, she is a better human being.

The opera was performed in English and with surtitles for increased comprehensibility. There were numerous cuts to the score, but without loss of dramatic focus. The orchestra was reduced from Mozart's original, but the redistribution of parts combined with the conductor's demanding ear served the music well. The biggest loss was the trumpets, especially in the martial aria that ends Act 1.

As with Eaton's last production of “Figaro,” the four acts were separated and featured different sets. There was only one intermission, but while the sets were changed for the second and fourth acts, the orchestra returned. Bravo.

Few performances of “The Marriage of Figaro,” including by much bigger companies and more famous singers, reach the synergy of elements that Eaton consistently achieves, and which provides the deepest satisfaction.

Summerfest's “The Marriage of Figaro” will be repeated July 19 and Aug. 1 at the Twentieth Century Club, 4201 Bigelow Blvd., Oakland. Admission is $25 to $75. Details: 412-326-9687 or otsummerfest.org

Mark Kanny is classical music critic for Tribe Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7877 or mkanny@tribweb.com.

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