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OTSL opens with a festive familiar romp

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, May 16, 2010 - For 35 years now, as roses first bloom in St. Louis, singers have come to town for a month of rehearsals for the Opera Theatre of St. Louis festival season.

Under the keen watch of conductor Timothy Long and artistic director James Robinson, 15 singing actors and the chorus of a dozen are completing their fourth week of rigorous rehearsals. Many in this disciplined group have post-graduate degrees from years of music conservatory work.

But no matter the experience or degrees, the singers are polishing singing, acting and enunciation, which is taken very seriously at OTSL. Seán Curran, whose enticing choreography for last season’s “Salome” nearly caused cardiac arrests, is rehearsing his elegantly costumed cast and chorus in 18th-century dance.

Such rehearsal and attention to detail with the cast are a St. Louis bonus.

In late April, Metropolitan Opera stage director Mary Zimmerman spoke at Washington U., detailing all the advance work that the New York company’s opera directors do to create its spectacles. She also spoke of her frustration that the company generally schedules only a few days of rehearsals. Occasionally busy singers are unavailable even for one group rehearsal.

OTSL-goers in her Wash U. audience politely told her that opera is not always so short on rehearsals. OTSL singers’ contracts call for them to be in rehearsals at the Sally Levy Opera Center for four weeks, including most weekends. For many singers, those long and thoughtful rehearsals with some of the stage's best directors and conductors are a reason to sing in St. Louis.

Familiarity

At “Figaro,” opera goers will find some singers from recent OTSL seasons. Christopher Feigum sings the title role. Last spring, he sang Figaro in “Ghosts of Versailles,” going to Ireland with that OTSL production for its European première at the Wexford Music Festival. At both venues, Feigum’s vocal and comedic gifts shone. The latter were showcased when his Figaro, disguised as a veiled Turkish belly dancer, brought down the house down last season.

Kirkwood native Maria Kanyova (nee Mary Jane Posegate) won praise for singing Queen Marie Antoinette in “Ghosts of Versailles” last year at OTSL and at Wexford, adding to her thick portfolio of good reviews across the nation. Saturday she takes center stage again as the spunky Susanna, Figaro’s bride. As to that St. Louis question, Kanyova is a 1984 graduate of Kirkwood High School where she sang in its A Cappella Chorus, acted in its K.H. Players, served on student council, ran cross country and was in the National Honor Society.

Amanda Majeski sings Rosina, the Countess Almaviva; and Jamie Barton sings Marcellina, a doctor’s housekeeper. All three women have sung in the chorus and were formerly in the OTSL Gerdine Young Artists apprentice program. This “Figaro” production is dedicated to the company’s founding patrons the late Alice and Leigh Gerdine of St. Louis. The apprentice program is named for them.

Perfection

“The Marriage of Figaro” has often been called the perfect opera, and it marked a musical watershed. Mozart braided six distinct characters singing at once with six different views. The wonder of his musicality is that audiences can follow and understand each one’s story. When Mozart’s invented the sextet, operas were rather stiff and more concert like. Most earlier operas featured belt-it-out show-stopping arias, duets and trios. Mozart’s sextets, presented first in “Figaro,” elevated opera to more believable drama.

The 224-year-old masterpiece has vivid characters whose joys, lusty temptations, personal conflicts and heart-breaking laments still seem relevant. No sketchy goddesses or fuzzy kings here, but clearly defined Spanish individuals: employers and their employees, bride and groom, a deeply hurt wife, rapacious roué and a young lovely woman steeled to escape the count’s sexual advances.

Sometimes the employees seem smarter than their boss: That’s the French Enlightenment for you.

At the time Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro” opened, many European intellectuals championed the American Revolution. Their calls for human rights evolved into the French 1789 “Declaration of the Rights of Man.” In the opera, Figaro is a wildly self-confident barber, gifted at getting knots out love affairs. He boasts: “It is I who will call the tune!”

“Figaro” was a hit from its first performance in 1786 in Vienna. The opera’s librettist Lorzeno Da Ponte based the plot on Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais' wildly popular play of the same name. Beaumarchais himself was a conniving French court schemer whose social climbing seemed at odds with his sympathies for revolutionary change. (Beaumarchais was a character last season on stage at OTSL in “Ghosts of Versailles,” the fantasy about the playwright’s love for Queen Marie Antoinette.)

The Austrian Mozart survived on royal and church patronage, so he was daring to compose an opera based on Beaumarchais' play. The Austrian emperor had censored the “Figaro” play for its championing of rights for uppity servants and employees. No wonder that when Mozart died five years later at 35, he was broke.

Fun

The Enlightenment philosophy that personal conflicts can be overcome by gracious reconciliation is this opera’s message; but on the surface it’s a comic romp. The plot focuses on the search for love on the Seville estate of a count and countess on the wedding day of the barber Figaro and Susanna. She’s the countess’s maid.

Mistaken identities, silly disguises to hide extramarital desires, and a hormone-driven teenage boy keep the audience laughing. Ultimately the opera shines forth with the countess’ ravishing aria about forgiveness.

No matter how many times Opera Theatre’s general director Timothy O’Leary sees “Figaro,” he says he’s still moved in the last scene when the humiliated countess sings.

“Beneath all the hilarity there is the important theme of forgiveness,” he said. Part of “Figaro’s” popularity is that it is accessible to someone new to opera. O’Leary said that, at 17, the first opera he ever liked was Mozart’s “The Magic Flute.” But the next year, as a freshman, he sang in the chorus of a Dartmouth College production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” It transformed the English major’s life. He’s been hooked ever since. Now, in his second year at the helm of OTSL, he delights in staging what he calls without qualification his favorite opera. 

“Marriage of Figaro” cast

Figaro - Christopher Feigum
Susanna, the countess’s maid - Maria Kanyova
Dr. Bartolo - Matthew Lau
Marcellina, his housekeeper - Jamie Barton
Cherubino, a page - Jamie Van Eyck
Count Almaviva - Edward Parks
Don Basilio, the music master - Matthew DiBattista
Rosina, Countess Almaviva - Amanda Majeski
Gardener Antonio - Bradley Smoak
Don Curzio, a lawyer - John Matthew Myers
Barbarina - Elizabeth Zharoff

Two peasants - Rebecca Nathanson and Irene Snyder

Patricia Rice has written about opera and classical music for many years. 

Patricia Rice is a freelance writer based in St. Louis who has covered religion for many years. She also writes about cultural issues, including opera.

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