- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 18, 2001

The Wolf Trap Opera Company opened its short run of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" ("Le Nozze di Figaro") Thursday at the Filene Center with a traditional slapstick approach to the piece.
This is the second "Figaro" presented in our area this year. The Washington Opera weighed in with its somber riff on Mozart's classic last winter. The Wolf Trap production, borrowing simple but evocative sets from the New York City Opera, offers an approach much better-suited to Wolf Trap's fun-loving picnickers. The audience did not come close to filling the venue, however.
"Figaro" is a comedy of errors, and its madcap plot makes sense, after a fashion. Count Almaviva has designs on the delightful Susanna, the Countess Rosina's maidservant and soon-to-be wife of the count's valet, the wily Figaro. To keep Susanna for himself (much to the chagrin of the countess), the count schemes to force Figaro's marriage to the much older Marcellina. But the always-alert Figaro and Susanna plot with the long-suffering countess to bring their wayward boss's philandering days to an end, allowing Figaro's marriage to occur.
Under the crisp direction of Paula Williams, the Wolf Trap Opera's youthful cast of up-and-coming singers has a wonderful time with this silly material. They create a real treat for the audience as they tumble, mug and sing up a storm. Maestro Christopher Larkin leads the Wolf Trap Opera Orchestra and the singers with a kind of relaxed precision, with the result that the music is nearly seamless. Even Mozart's rapid patter songs are synchronized smoothly something not always heard in Washington Opera productions featuring more seasoned casts.
The Italians are supposed to have invented bel canto (beautiful singing), but Mozart had no intention of taking a back seat to them in composing lovely arias. In "Figaro," he gave some of the best ones to the countess and Susanna, sung in these performances by sopranos Angela Fout and Lauren Skuce, respectively. Miss Fout's dignified handling of her more expressive role was subtly nuanced and poignantly phrased, although some of her quieter moments may not have traveled out to the audience seated on the lawn. Her exquisitely balanced performance of the famous aria "Dove Sono i Bei Momenti" ("Are Those Wonderful Moments Over?") thrilled the audience with its emotion and sophistication. Hers is the kind of mellow soprano that will get better and better with age.
As Susanna, Miss Skuce is cast in a more youthful role and brings plenty of energy to it. She takes full command of her irrepressible character. Her notes are well-shaped and her enunciation nearly perfect. She can deliver plenty of volume when she needs to, never allowing her exuberant voice to be lost in the Filene Center's sometimes cavernous acoustics. She's a sprightly and welcome foil to the male characters, and one can readily see why the count and Figaro are battling for her favors.
As the title character, bass Oren Gradus' Figaro is not about to be overshadowed by anyone. Mozart's opera is a true ensemble work no character gets to hog the stage all the time and as a result, Figaro often is not onstage. When he is, though, Mr. Gradus makes the most of his opportunities, particularly as he skulks about in the climactic final act. Bass voices have an unfortunate tendency to disappear into the fabric of the orchestra, but Mr. Gradus' well-supported voice and his knife-clear, well-enunciated notes establish him as a presence here. It gives the whole production a boost.
As the count, baritone Keith Phares is less a villain than a promiscuous bumbler. In his take on the count's great Figaro-dissing aria, "Vedro Mentr'io Sospiro," which can be sung with a sense of high outrage, Mr. Phares chooses to approach the music with a lighter touch and expresses more comic frustration than fury. His is a voice of great dignity and control, and his phrasing is impeccable
In the trouser role of Cherubino, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala gets off to a slow start in Act I. Her voice is barely audible even in the center-orchestra seats. Slight of build, she is believable as a teen-ager but doesn't quite have the male swagger down pat. Miss Zabala warms up as the opera progresses, however, and her light, almost syrupy voice gains in confidence and effectiveness.
The lesser roles have no second stringers in this production. Perhaps best of all was mezzo-soprano Lauren Curnow as the scheming Marcellina. A delight in the opera company's Gilbert and Sullivan concert with the National Symphony Orchestra in early July, Miss Curnow outdoes herself here in her broadly comic, bigger-than-life portrayal of a character that usually stands somewhat menacingly in the shadows. Her rubbery facial expressions (shades of Carol Burnett) hide a surprisingly creamy and expressive instrument. Her entrances and antics are a sensation and give a lift to the whole production without upstaging the principals.
Tenor Justin Vickers as an oily Don Basilio and comic bass Steven Humes (Doctor Bartolo) are superb in their short star turns. Hyperactive soprano Sarah Wolfson brings a welcome dose of petulance and bravado to the usually wimpy role of Barbarina, bass-baritone Daniel Gross is amusing as the drunken gardener Antonio, and tenor Lawrence Brownlee adds a few dozen notes of stuttering eccentricity to the tiny role of Don Curzio.


***
WHAT: "The Marriage of Figaro"
WHERE: Wolf Trap's Filene Center, 1551 Trap Road, Vienna
WHEN: 8 tonight
TICKETS: $18 to $48
PHONE: 703/218-6500 or online at www.wolftrap.org
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS


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