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Thursday, December 13, 2018  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Review: At last, opera finds a home at the Fox and ‘Figaro’ an apt selection

UPDATED: Sun., Sept. 23, 2018, 7:59 p.m.

Madison Leonard is Susanna and Gabriel Preisser is Figaro in the Inland Northwest Opera production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Don Hamilton)
Madison Leonard is Susanna and Gabriel Preisser is Figaro in the Inland Northwest Opera production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” (Don Hamilton)

Friday night saw the culmination of a long journey to bring together a professional regional opera company, an orchestra that draws on the rich pool of talent in the Spokane Symphony, and our region’s premier musical performance venue, the Martin Woldson Theater at the Fox.

The fitting choice of an opera to celebrate this achievement was one that would surely be regarded as the greatest ever written, had not its composer produced two subsequent operas – “Don Giovanni” and “Die Zauberflote (The Magic Flute)” – that provide competition. The work in question, of course, is Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro)” of 1786.

The achievement of this work is its fusion of disparate elements to a degree that suggests the way they are fused in real life. Mozart and his librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, described the work as a “playful drama,” a description that mirrors the complexity of the opera itself.

The plot of “Figaro” is both silly and sinister. Its characters are at once charming and threatening. Its outcome is both improbable and inevitable. Everywhere in the libretto you look, you find complexity. Naturally, because we are dealing with the greatest composer for the musical theater who ever lived, this complexity infuses the music as well, creating tremendous challenges for all the performers involved, singers and musicians. Vigor, wit, sorrow, anger – all the feelings expressed from the stage – appear also in the orchestral score.

The orchestra assembled by the Inland Northwest Opera included many principal players from the Spokane Symphony, including Mateusz Wolski and Amanda Howard-Phillips (violins), John Marshall (cello), Chip Phillips (clarinet), Nick Carper (viola), and Larry Jess (trumpet). Under conductor Brian Holman, they played with great precision and technical finish, providing support for the singers that was always considerate and attentive. There was, however, a placid flame-retardant quality to Holman’s interpretation, a relentless steadiness of pulse, that robbed the performance of some of the vitality and quick-wittedness others have found in the score.

The impulse that sets the action of Figaro in motion is not Figaro and Susanna’s decision to marry, but the intention of Susanna’s master, Count Almaviva, to have Susanna sexually, not merely in spite of, but because of the impending marriage. The character of the Count might have just stepped out of the pages of the news, as yet another of the sexual predators who take advantage of the power of their position to accomplish the goals of a disordered personality.

The Count is sometimes played as a buffoon, more ridiculous than sinister. As portrayed by Morgan Smith in this production, he is nothing of the kind. Behind the fuming and fluster, one senses an implacable intention by the character to have his way. This determination was projected by Smith’s mastery of the vocal challenges of his part: his immaculate diction, as well as the firmness and solidity of tone throughout the full range of the part. His dramatic presence is also commanding, not least in his portrayal of the Count’s final remorse and contrition for the humiliation he has brought on himself and his devoted wife.

Performing the role of his wife, the Countess Almaviva, was soprano Inna Dukach. Overcoming some unsteadiness in the middle of her voice early in the evening, she went on to deliver a performance that was deeply moving, especially in her two great arias, “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono,” in which she deployed her beautiful tone and awesome breath support to heart-rending effect.

In accordance with classical standards of balance which Mozart seemed to carry in his DNA, the figures of the Count and Countess Almaviva are paralleled by those of the would-be newlyweds, Figaro and Susanna. The part of Figaro often is taken by a lyric baritone, a voice type well-suited to the rapid pace of the recitative and the mercurial wit and imagination Mozart gives the character’s music.

This weekend’s Figaro, Gabriel Preisser, however, is not a lyric baritone. His voice possesses the dramatic, heroic qualities more often heard in the operas of Wagner and Verdi, although the role of Don Giovanni could have been written for him. Nevertheless, his assumption of Figaro was a triumph. He lightened his voice where necessary, and managed the intricacies of the vocal writing with utter ease and naturalness. When, at an emotional climax, he released his full reserves of burnished, clarion tone, the effect was thrilling.

His intended, the crafty, tough-minded Susanna, was portrayed by Hayden’s own Madison Leonard, who remained the focus of the action as long as she was onstage, thanks to the specificity of her acting and her lively projection of character through her voice. Though there was perhaps some problem with support in the opening scenes, when her voice became inaudible in its lower range, this soon disappeared. Her duet with the Countess in Act 3, “Sull’aria…che soave zeffiretto” was perfection itself, and the skillful ambivalence of “Deh vieni, non tardar,” in which Susanna is both sincere and artfully coy, bore the mark of genuine mastery.

Flitting about the margins of the two principal couples is the figure of Cherubino, the embodiment of adolescent sexuality, heedless of all restraint, utterly ungoverned by reason. In the role of Cherubino, soprano Olivia Vote had everything asked for by Mozart and by director Robert Neu. As we would expect, this meant moving easily between slapstick and genuine pathos, both physically and vocally. She displayed a seemingly inexhaustible stream of full, lovely tone, unaffected by her antics onstage. The audience ate it up.

The production transported the action from Seville in the 1780s to rural England in 1915, and very effectively demonstrated the utter portability of Mozart and Da Ponte’s insights into mankind’s loves and lusts. One expected the figure of Harvey Weinstein to appear onstage at any moment.


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