Eastman Opera Theatre within the last few years has earned a reputation for consistently successful productions of challenging 20th-century works rarely performed by students. Philip Glass's "Hydrogen Jukebox" last fall had been the latest in a résumé that has also recently included operas by Francis Poulenc and Kurt Weill, among others.
With the official arrival of spring, Eastman Opera Head Steven Daigle and company have turned to a veritable classic in the standard repertoire and a popular standby for college productions: Mozart's "Le Nozze di Figaro" ("The Marriage of Figaro"). And befitting the change in season, this new production is particularly verdant in more ways than one.
That's not to say that this "Figaro" is groundbreaking: As stage director, Daigle doesn't mess with the proven formula. The traditional 18th-century setting and costumes remain, as does the original Italian language version (with English supertitles). And of course, the central plot still surrounds Figaro and Susanna, two young lovers and servants who attempt to marry despite aristocratic meddling. It's all still inherently playful at heart.
The subtle difference is that Scenic Designer Mary Griswold has blurred the lines between interior and exterior, so that it is unclear where Count Almaviva's opulent house ends and the grove and garden begin. Visually lush and evocative of burgeoning springtime, the analogy to blooming love among the nobility and the peasants alike is overt without being heavy-handed. In short, it's aesthetically pleasing and thematically poignant.
Eastman Opera's singers are yet to disappoint this critic. In the Thursday, April 7, presentation, the entire cast sang with both ease and dexterity, and there was an amiable chemistry among the entire ensemble. As Figaro, baritone John Meyer possessed a warm and resonant tone throughout, and the timbre of soprano Natalie Buickians' Susanna had melodious, bell-like clarity. Baritone Anthony Baron was convincing and forceful as the philandering Count Almaviva, with a slight and welcome edginess to his voice that cut Mozart's sweetened melodies with a bitterness suitable to the character of the ever-stymied high society man. As his neglected wife, the Countess Almaviva, soprano Paulina Swierczek was stunning, combining a powerful vowel attack with a honeyed tone that flowed over a tightly coiled vibrato. With a naturally exquisite voice, Swierczek employed excellent phrasing and breath support in what was the best pure singing of the production.
But the leads were not the only ones to deliver quality performances. The supporting roles of Marcellina, Dr. Bartolo, and Don Basilio were performed with strength and integrity by Emma Ritter, Nicholas Kilkenny, and Nick Huff, respectively.
Within all of these well-crafted renditions, it was mezzo-soprano Sun-Ly Pierce in the role of the naive and amorous page Cherubino who gave the most entertaining and well-rounded showing of the entire opera. Ideally cast to play the lovesick puppy in boy's clothing, Pierce sparkled with enduring comedic flair. Vocally, her musical gravitas was anchored in an honest, substantive timbre and light, buoyant phrasing.
Though Pierce has a decidedly lighter tone at this early stage in her career, a comparison to prominent American mezzo Kate Lindsey is appropriate. In an opera industry that always needs singers who can act, one wonders what a wonder Pierce might be as Nicklausse/the Muse in Jacques Offenbach's "The Tales of Hoffmann" or the Composer in Richard Strauss's "Ariadne auf Naxos."
The cast mentioned above will perform again on Saturday at 7:30 p.m., while a second cast will perform on Friday at 7:30 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.