Marriage of Figaro – Servants outsmart masters; women outsmart men; what is the world coming to?

What a contrast! A couple of weeks ago I spent 17 hours in 6 days seeing Wagner’s 4 glorious Ring operas with all their significance, dramatic music, and deep emotions without even a chuckle of humor. Last week I spent approximately the same number of hours in 8 days attending 3 operas, a play, and two play-readings all of which were light, filled with laughter, and (for the operas) musically hummable.

Teatro Regio di Parma; photo courtesy Emerging Pictures

Sunday July 10 I saw the European HD of Rossini’s The Barber of Seville from Parma, Wednesday I went to the Met HD of his Daughter of the Regiment, and last Sunday I went to Pocket Opera’s live production of The Marriage of Figaro – each of them a delightful light opera filled with wonderful hummable music and a feel-good happy ending.

Around the World in 80 days; photo courtesy California Theatre Center

In between I saw The California Theatre Center perform a humorous adaptation of Jules Verne’s Around the World in 80 Days and our Thespian group had two readings of Giraudoux’ Amphitryon 38 – a French farce based on a Greek myth and filled with plot twists and sly innuendos.

My enjoyment of Figaro began when I took my usual seat G1, opened the program, and saw several familiar names on the cast list. Indeed four of them were already with Pocket Opera when I saw my first performance 18 years ago!

Marcelle Dronkers as the Countess

I immediately recognized Marcelle Dronkers whom I had previously seen as Fiordiligi in CosÚČ Fan Tutte, Alice Ford in Nicolai’s Merry Wives of Windsor, a couple of more serious roles such as Lady Macbeth and Elizabeth I, and the leading soprano in almost all of the Handel operas – all live performances by Pocket Opera. And I recently saw her star as Norina in a DVD of Pocket Opera’s 1989 version of Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Her great acting ability and her rich mature voice made her an ideal Countess.

Roger McCracken as Dr. Bartolo

Bass-baritone Roger McCracken was appearing in his 38th Pocket Opera production as Dr. Bartolo. He has sung most of the old men, priests, and shysters in the Pocket Opera repertory including the title role in the above-mentioned DVD. His singing has always been excellent and I have enjoyed seeing his comic acting ability grow substantially over the years.

Andrew Morgan as Don Basilio

Andrew Morgan who doubled as Don Basilio and the notary Curzio was a third cast member whose history with Pocket Opera goes back further than my own. He has appeared in countless supporting roles and has also directed a large number of performances. He has a great flair for the comic. It was particular fun to watch his face during that wonderful scene where the Count, Cherubino, and Susanna are all moaning over the scandal of the former two being in her bedroom while Basilio is gloating over the scandal fodder at his command.

Elspeth Franks as Marcellina

The final member of this veteran quartet is Elspeth Franks who was a wonderful Marcellina. I can’t resist quoting in full her “biography” in the program:

Elspeth Franks as a Pocket Opera veteran would wear the pants of Cherubino, but concerns over the ability to jump out of a window without actually breaking something other than a few flower pots has necessitated succumbing to wearing drag for a debut as Marcellina in this production. Notable roles with Pocket Opera over the past 100 years have included Lazuli (The Star); Xerxes; Nero; Rinaldo; Cupid; Orestes: and many others in former lives. Elspeth was an Egyptian Pharaoh, a Roman gladiator, a spittoon carrier at “The Hog & Wash” in Pugsey-on-the-Thames, and lives have continued in a downward spiral to the point of being a professional singer. Elspeth now lives in a permanent state of disarray in San Francisco with 3 cats – Pizzicato, Magnificat, and . . . Pippin (yes, named after you-know-who).

Wayne Wong as Antonio

Wayne Wong was another familiar name. Although he’s only been with Pocket Opera for 10 years, Antonio was his 22nd appearance with the company. You should look up his biography in the program.

Peter Tuff as Count Almaviva

Although I did not recognize the name, Peter Tuff (Count Almaviva) is also a Pocket Opera veteran, but is only just returned after ten years singing in Europe.

Susanna (Aimee Puentes), Cherubino (Rebecca Krouner), Figaro (Rolfe Dauz)

To balance all this experience in the supporting roles, the three remaining leads, all good singers, were relatively new and delightfully young.

Rebecca Krouner as Cherubino

Rebecca Krouner made a very believable 14-year-old gangling boy who has already achieved his full growth. Indeed, he towered over Susanna, which made her verse as she prepared to dress him in one of her frocks,

Susanna (Aimee Puentes) & Cherubino (Rebecca Krouner)

So let us have a look.
‘Twill fit him perfectly.
We’re the same height – well roughly.
Take the coat off

exceptionally humorous. Director Diana Shuster handled this deftly by having Susanna force Cherubino to his knees, which put their heads at the same level.

Rolfe Dauz as Figaro

I had heard Rolfe Dauz sing Figaro last fall in Notre Dame de Namur’s intimate production last fall; once again he brought an appealing youthful brashness to the role. Donald Pippin told me later that he had anticipated a possible problem since the previous production had used a different translation, but that Rolfe succeeded from the start in forgetting the earlier words.

Aimee Puentes as Susanna

Which brings us to Aimee Puentes as Susanna. Saucy, pert and with a clear soprano voice, Aimee was Susanna – the lady’s maid with a keen sense of her own worth. Every mood was clearly reflected in her mobile face.

Count Almaviva forces his attentions on Susanna

It was particular fun to watch her during Act III when she is setting up the false seduction scene. Her teasing, flashing eyes as she promises the Count, “of course I shall be there;” her aside grimace to the audience when he kisses her arm; the deft way she ducks out and dances away when his arms are about to enfold her.

The Music. Don’t forget the music. Holding all this delightful nonsense together. Mozart at his best. Whether in arias, duets, or ensembles it is perfection. Action and music together, each enhancing the other. I was particularly taken by the finale to Act II. Seven of them on stage – Count and Countess, Figaro and Susanna, Marcellina, Bartolo, and Basilio – in continuous motion and continuous singing, all directed to the audience. Solo lines, duets, trios, quartets, or all seven at once – a continuous riot of gorgeous sound.

Grande Finale to Figaro

The finale to the whole opera ain’t bad, either.

I’m looking forward to seeing it all again next Sunday July 27 at Marine’s Memorial Theatre. Please join me. I’ll be in seat E1, so drop by and say hello during intermission. If the East Bay is more convenient or if you have a conflict on the 24th, come to the final performance of the 2011 season at the Hillside Club in Berkeley on July 31.

– The Opera Nut

Pocket Opera Business and Theaters addresses

Photos: (except as noted) Robert Selinsky for Pocket Opera

This review by Philip G Hodge appeared in on July 20, 2011

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