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Chamber Opera Chicago

at the Ruth Page Auditorium

Chamber Opera Chicago’s production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro reminded me of something Luciano Pavarotti said a couple of years back–before he embarked on his latest and most successful weight-loss campaign. Pavarotti admitted that he had given up the role of Ferrando in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte because he was “too big in the body” to be credible. It wasn’t that Pavarotti was of the mind that an overweight person couldn’t be believable as an attractive lover–being of generous stature myself, I hope such is not the case–but it is crucial that Ferrando be able to disguise himself so that he can fool his betrothed.

Similarly, in The Marriage of Figaro it is crucial that the countess and Susanna can be mistaken physically for each other. The comedy is of a decidedly different nature when the two are completely opposite sizes, yet the other characters in the opera pretend they can’t tell which is which simply because their faces are covered. Both women should be more or less the same size–consistency, not size, is the issue. Yet inconsistency was only one of this production’s many bizarre casting problems, which had little to do with the vocal ability of its principals and which at times made it look more like a Saturday Night Live satire.

Just to be fair on the weight issue, the roles of Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina, Figaro’s parents, are usually reserved for larger as well as older singers. Yet in this production they were a thin couple, young enough to be contemporaries of Figaro. Bartolo was even almost sprightly, although he carried a cane.

One would hardly have noticed that one of the leads was wearing a false limb if it wasn’t for the fact that the opera calls for that same limb to have an identifiable birthmark on it and no one thought to simply change the reference to his other arm. The trouser role of the opera was sung by a woman who was a good two heads shorter than the other women “he” was flirting with.

Don Basilio and the count were dressed and made up, consciously or not, to be dead ringers for Quentin Crisp and Little Richard. In fact, the overdone costumes and makeup seemed to owe as much to 20th-century Las Vegas as to 18th-century aristocracy. The powder blue sets were adequate but hardly elegant enough. They weren’t very well constructed either, judging from the fact that one of the characters flattened a “stone” bench by sitting on it a bit too suddenly (he was of normal size too). No one was hurt, apparently, but the audience could be heard praying for the two characters who sat on an identical bench shortly afterward. Other frills of the opera were also minimized, notably the wedding scene and its Spanish dance sequence, which was hilariously, stiffly shuffled rather than danced. Most of the time I found myself having to completely separate what I saw from what I heard.

Figaro was sung by Paul Grizzell, who possesses a bassy, rich baritone voice with superb diction. His phrasing and vocal expressiveness were memorable, and his acting was by far the best of the evening. His betrothed, Susanna, was sung by soprano Theresa Brancaccio, whose voice was pleasing, but sometimes excessive. She was not always easy to understand.

Baritone Andrew Schultze as the count had a stodgy stage presence but a pleasant, though often unfocused, voice. His big act-three aria was marred by uneven register shifts, a weak upper range, and runs that were completely slurred over. His wife, the countess, was sung by Rochelle Ellis, who possesses one of those all-around soprano voices that sounds as if it could encompass both the mezzo and standard repertoire. It has a very dark, full color, with enormous projection and a large though controlled vibrato. It was the best voice in the show–beautifully graceful, even if too large and too romantically colored for Mozart. Ellis was also the only singer who was able to deliver an impressive Mozartean trill.

The page Cherubino was sung by mezzo-soprano Susan Hofflander, who had difficulty in the lower and upper registers and in making smooth transitions to both–although her acting was usually quite effective. Peter Mohawk, as Don Basilio, gave an unusually punk performance, which, once you got used to it, was one of the most interesting features of this production–even if it had nothing whatsoever to do with the character.

The “orchestra” consisted of a string quintet, piano, and occasional guitar, the latter in place of a lute. Though the strings played the same one-per-player parts that a Mozartean orchestra would play, the winds were filled in by Chamber Opera Chicago’s music director Lawrence Rapchak on the piano. That instrument was also used for minimal continuo–in place of a harpsichord–throughout the opera, as well as for general reinforcement. That approach left me wondering if the music wouldn’t be far better served by some digitally sampled wind and harpsichord sounds, which could even be controlled from Rapchak’s piano (if everything were “MIDIed up”). In fact, Rapchak could even add some sampled strings for more of an orchestral feel. Purists would argue, but the result would be far truer to the composer’s original texture. I’m not saying Rapchak should trade in his tiny orchestra for a synthesizer, but I am saying that the orchestra would be far more effective amplified with synthesized sounds. Rapchak already has his hands full, but having seen what he can do with much larger forces in his opera The Lifework of Juan Diaz, I think he could handle it.

Rapchak’s approach to Mozart was understandably heavy-handed and stodgy under the circumstances. His tempi were slow and Romantically conceived, as were his continuo accompaniments and his sense of Classical ornamentation. This kept things moving pretty slowly in an opera where a breakneck pace is vital to making the comedy work. There was plenty of comedy, though not the comedy that Mozart intended. And there was little Mozartean charm or lyricism coming from either the pit or the stage.