Review: Plenty of bright spots in Aspen Opera Theater’s ‘Figaro’ |

Review: Plenty of bright spots in Aspen Opera Theater’s ‘Figaro’

Harvey Steiman
Special to The Aspen Times


What: “The Marriage of Figaro”

Where: Wheeler Opera House

When: Thursday and Saturday, 7 p.m. each night

How much: $75 ($25 obstructed)

Tickets: Aspen Music Festival Box Office, 970-925-9042,

Count Aspen Opera Theater’s production of Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” a success, thanks in large part to splendid conducting by Jane Glover.

In the first of three performances Tuesday night in the Wheeler Opera House, the musical cohesion between the pit and the all-student cast made the biggest impression, especially in Mozart’s glorious ensembles.

The expansive finale to Act 2, one of the greatest 20 minutes in all of opera, unfolded with a natural feel and superbly balanced singing in groups building up from a duet to a stageful of singers. Glover’s pace never flagged in that segment, or throughout the opera for that matter. She knows this piece inside and out, and she kept everyone on their toes both before and behind the footlights. She pushed where comic and musical effect were needed, and otherwise let it flow.

Director Edward Berkeley fine-tuned meaningful moments between characters and crafted storytelling smoothly.

Everything onstage seemed to be inspired by (or at least attuned to) the music, despite some wince-worthy glosses (mostly involving ill-advised dancing).

The sets by John Kasarda, who also designed “A Little Night Music” earlier this summer, made clever use of the classic six doors of farce (and in this case, a window).

On the other hand, a pantomime with characters marching back and forth behind a partition during Glover’s fleet trip through the overture was totally unnecessary and distracting.

Musically, the only soloist who handled his arias flawlessly was Xiaomeng Zhang, a 29-year-old baritone from Wenzhou, China, studying at Juilliard.

His frustration-venting aria in Act 3, “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro,” was a miracle of vocal focus and controlled fury. Every time he stepped into an ensemble it rose two or three notches.

His portrayal of Count Almaviva, who tries (and fails) to achieve an assignation with Susanna as she is about to marry his servant, Figaro, balanced poise against frustration.

Other characters almost universally delivered expressive recitatives, a big point in Glover’s many previous goes at Mozart operas here in Aspen.

These lead-ins to aria carry plot and character, but the opera’s parade of well-known arias were more hit-and-miss.

As Zheng’s counterpart soprano Avery Boettcher, 27, who joins Michigan Opera’s resident artist program this year, infused the Countess’ two big arias — “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” — with more spinto than lyric color, and couldn’t quite find enough creaminess in the Countess’ gorgeous melody of forgiveness at the end to draw the expected tears.

Soprano Jessica Niles, 21, made an appealing Susanna, Figaro’s betrothed. She spun out “Deh vieni, non tardar” with sustained tone, and her sound made the Act 3 duet with Boettcher, “Canzonette sull’aria,” come to life.

Bass-baritone David Weigel, 31, invested Figaro’s character with more bluster than wile, but he also made a believably bewildered protagonist. He’s a head-and-a-half taller than Niles, and the staging made clever use of this size difference.

Although his Act 1 arias never quite took off, he got a lot of juice from the Act 4 rant, “Aprite un po’ quegli occhi,” warning men to beware of clever women.

Megan Samarin, 27, laid on thick the horniness and fey charm of Cherubino’s character, and applied a sleek mezzo-soprano to the famous Act 2 aria “Voi, che sapete.”

Among the supporting cast the standout was mezzo-soprano Kelly Birch (a resident artist at Kansas City Opera) as the spinster Marcellina. She excelled as Desiree Armfeldt in “A Little Night Music.”

Her stature, sure approach to intonation and tone, and attention to the music’s little details paid off every time she opened her mouth.

And Christopher Wolf employed a clear high tenor to his role as the wily Basilio, Figaro’s nemesis.

In the end, Mozart’s music carries the day, and the success of this production owes the most to Glover and the 41-piece orchestra.

The run continues tonight and concludes Saturday night at the Wheeler.

Harvey Steiman has been writing about the Aspen Music Festival for 25 years. His reviews appear in The Aspen Times twice a week.


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