Amore Opera rose from the ashes of New York's Amato Opera when its founder retired after sixty years. Despite an economy unfriendly to arts non-profits, Amore has blossomed, and this year offered a most unusual "Fall Figaro Fest": Barbiere di Siviglia and Le Nozze di Figaro, of course, but also a recently excavated Saverio Mercadante opera, I due Figaro. Curiosity about this last work drew me to my first performance at Amore, on Friday, October 21 at the East Village's tiny, charmingly ramshackle Connelly Theater. For an infant company to attempt an utterly unknown opera by a composer almost as obscure speaks volumes about its management's adventuresome and pioneering spirit.
I due Figaro was composed for Madrid's Teatro Principe between July and October of 1826 to an existing Felice Romani libretto, previously set by Michele Carafa. Banned in the eleventh hour of its rehearsals by King Fernando VII's draconian censors, it would not get a public hearing until the Principe finally put it on in 1835. Then it vanished, shriveling to a dimensionless title in the list of Mercadante's works, its music utterly ignored for nearly two centuries. Ignored, that is, until a young doctoral student, Paolo Cascio, stumbled onto its autograph score among the long-gone Teatro Principe's archives, now a special collection housed in a Madrid library. Revived to great fanfare and general acclaim this year thanks to the efforts of Ricardo Muti, the work burst vibrantly to life in Salzburg and Ravenna; another production is scheduled for the Teatro Real in Madrid next year. There is every reason to suppose that this Lazarus of an opera buffa can look forward to a new – and perhaps long-term – lease on life.
The reliable Romani (also the poet for Anna Bolena) turned out a quality libretto – a fizzy confection of amusing situational comedy, funny dialog, crackling verses, witty plot twists, and of course showy solo moments by each of the six principal singers. Based on an obscure French play by Honoré-Antoine Richaud-Martelly, the action of I due Figaro begins fifteen years after the stories of Figaro, Susanna, Cherubino, and the Count and Countess Almaviva left off in Nozze.
The beloved characters, having ended the two more famous operas in the 'happily ever after' bliss of fairy tales, have seen their marriages deteriorate into all-too-realistic tedium. Figaro is surprisingly the villain, his schemes having devolved from well-intentioned matchmaking ruses into larcenous plots fueled by greed. The opera begins in medias res, Figaro having hatched a plan to marry Almaviva's daughter Ines to a servant disguised as a nobleman: he hopes that he and the impostor can then split the sizable dowry. To add insult to injury, Figaro hopes to profit further from his crime by suggesting its details to an artistically barren playwright as the plot for his next hit comedy, in exchange for a share of the royalties.
Almaviva, bitter and bored with the Countess, is convinced that a marriage of convenience is preferable to the inevitably disappointing illusion of a love match. Despite the vehement opposition of Ines, the Countess, and Susanna, he is unbending in his demand that Ines tie the knot with the faux aristocrat. But now a grown-up Cherubino, absent for many years in the army (no longer just a farfallone amoroso, but a colonel) arrives incognito to rescue Ines, with whom he has been secretly trysting. Unrecognized by Figaro and the Count, he poses as a servant, coincidentally also named Figaro. The women, led by a jaded and self-congratulatory Susanna, conspire with Cherubino to frustrate the marriage. A train wreck of complications results as the real and the false Figaros match wits, each trying to discredit his rival with the Count. The opera ends, of course, with plots and plotters exposed, lovers united, and a penitent Figaro forgiven by the Count and Susanna.
Mercadante's score threw ice water on my expectations: this opera is a work of true artistic genius. Don Chisciotte, the other "Spanish" Mercadante score to be recently revived (at Wildbad in 2007), struck me as a competently written piece, the work of an excellent craftsman, but no more: pleasant enough, but almost instantly forgettable. Not so with this opera: I due Figaro never lags in interest. Florid Rossinian cabalettas and hilariously hectic buffo ensembles cavort alongside meltingly lyrical arias; recitative is fast-paced and economical, advancing the action but never letting the drama lag. Practically all the tunes are catchy and memorable, a rarity in even the most highly regarded of Mercadante's tragic works. Though there is not a lackluster piece in the opera, I was especially delighted by the fabulous quartet of stupefaction in Act I, both of Cherubino's arias, the frenetic Act I finale, and an amusing and frothy comic sextet in the second act.
Perhaps the most delightful surprise of all for an opera of this vintage is the distinctive tinta of the score, which is expertly tailored to both its original Iberian audience and this particular story. Though the style naturally owes a great deal to Rossini, Mercadante is no mere myhah bird. He skillfully weaves together Spanish dance tunes and rhythms with reminiscences of both Mozart and Rossini's operas. This is accomplished in a seamless, organic way that never sounds artificial or clunky. In Susanna's Act I aria, the final bars of her cabaletta slyly paraphrase "Io sono dolcile" from Barbiere; a gossiping chorus at the beginning of Act II echoes in text, pacing and dynamics if not in tune Bartolo's "La calunnia". Throughout the score, there are fleeting instances that hearken back to the delicate, transparent orchestration of Mozart.
The singing ranged from excellent to poor, but every singer was impeccably rehearsed, both vocally and in their stage action. All were clearly having tremendous fun, and their enthusiasm was infectious. Two alternating casts were featured. On the night I attended, the standout performance was mezzo Hayden DeWitt's Cherubino, the largest role. It's a daunting part, vocally a descendant not of prepubescent Lothario of Nozze, but of Arsace in Semiramide. Looking adorably boyish but affecting a convincingly manly swagger, DeWitt sailed through the role's fearsome coloratura with great verve and dash. She is a marvelous comedic actor, using exaggerated, silent film star facial expressions to great effect. She has secure coloratura technique, nimble as a mountain goat no matter what the demands: a bit reminiscent of Bartoli at her best. Every part of the voice, from the emphatic chest tones to the clear uppermost notes, rang out with beauty and clarity. The audience rewarded her with the evening's loudest and most vociferous ovation.
Beautiful, statuesque Elizabeth Treat was a sassy Susanna, with an unusual voice that melded stratospheric Queen-of-the-Night acuti onto a powerful, almost contralto bottom register: so distinct were the two halves, that they almost sounded as if two different singers were producing them. Alea Vorillas as Ines had a strident top and wayward pitch, but sang with such bravura that it made up for insecure technique. She gave a compelling comic performance; in the scenes with her implacable father, this Ines evoked Sally Struthers' tantrums in All in the Family. In Amore's production, her aria in Act II has her half-heartedly try and then abandon several different methods of suicide, eliciting belly-laughs from the auditorium. As the Count, Gilad Paz had a rather dry-sounding timbre, but used it very stylishly and with great feeling whether he was being imperious or amorous; his pompous mugging drew its share of laughs. As Figaro, handsome Daniel Quintana was a bit out of his depth in the more florid passages, but more than held his own in the lyrical ones; he too, was an accomplished comedian and won the audience over handily. Elena McEntire lent an attractive, rounded mezzo to the role of the Countess.
The chorus was small (only about a dozen people) but well-schooled, involved, and clearly having every bit as much of a blast as the principals. Gregory Buchalter conducted with brio, keeping the pace vigorous as it should be in this opera. The reduced orchestra dealt valiantly with the considerable demands of the score (which is no mere um-pa-pa) notwithstanding a few violin passages whose pitch went sour. Sets and costumes were created on a slender budget (possibly they were inherited from the Amato) and were completely traditional. Director Nathan Hull relied on tried and true Rossinian buffo tactics – 'human machine' ensembles and choruses, and tastefully conceived physical comedy. There were no overly clever gimmicks or directorial conceits here, nor was any gratuitous sexual or scatological humor used for cheap laughs. Wisely, Hull let the composer and the librettist speak for themselves. The result was one of the most delightful and fulfilling evenings at the opera I've had in years.
By Daniel Foley
Photo Credit: Tal Karlin (Photos are of a different cast from the same production).