- The Washington Times - Monday, March 19, 2001

The Washington Opera presents a rather stately, yet beautifully sung, production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro)."

This "Figaro" somehow seems physically and psychologically darker than most — perhaps because of the production's sepulchral lighting effects — and sometimes the audience can barely see the singers. But fortunately it can hear them, and the performance of the company's top-notch ensemble of youngish singers is an unmitigated delight.

"Figaro's" farcical plot occurs later in the timeline than Gioacchino Rossini's equally popular "The Barber of Seville" and involves the usual clever hero, stock villain and virtuous heroine.

After being badgered to renounce his claims to the traditional "droit du seigneur," or right of the master to enjoy the first night with any new bride in his domain, Count Almaviva has second thoughts when it comes to the lovely Susanna. She is the soon-to-be wife of the count's valet, the wily Figaro — who, ironically, had helped the count win his own wife, Rosina, the Countess Almaviva.

To snare Susanna for himself, the count schemes to force Figaro's marriage to the much older Marcellina, to whom the valet has foolishly forfeited a debt. But Figaro and Susanna launch a counterplot, along with the long-suffering countess, to bring their wayward boss's wandering days to an end and allow Figaro's marriage to go forth.

This is a tale rife with amusing opportunities, and the Washington Opera's cast makes the most of them and creates a bubbling musical confection. Cast members generally are able to do this despite the nicely constructed but catacomblike sets the company rented this year from Spain's Teatro de la Maestranza, Figaro's hometown of Seville. To bury Mozart's immortal comic genius and the company's singers in so many dark shadows seems a shame, but European set designers seem to like things gloomy these days.

The Washington Opera's music director, Heinz Fricke, establishes a nice pace for the festivities. The orchestra for the most part responds to the maestro's magic touch with playing that is crisp, elegant and puckish when it needs to be.

Singers and orchestra were occasionally out of synch in the March 10 performance, however, particularly in the choral numbers. Such problems, a frequent hazard on nervous opening nights, will almost certainly have ironed themselves out by this week's performances.

The singing is the main event in "Figaro," and in this production offers much to praise. One can roam a thesaurus for superlatives to describe the performances of Anna Netrebko and Jennifer Casey Cabot. Rarely do two divas complement each other so well, both in character and in vocal quality, as these two singers who portray Susanna and Countess Almaviva, respectively.

Miss Netrebko, a star of Russia's Kirov Opera, made an impressive, if slightly uncertain, debut last season with the Washington Opera as the ill-fated Gilda in Giuseppe Verdi's "Rigoletto." Her entire "Figaro" performance is convincing and secure and avoids most of the intonation problems she experienced in the early going of "Rigoletto." Her lyric soprano has a wonderfully creamy lower register, and her top notes are delicate and finely formed. Unfortunately, director Jose Luis Castro chooses to keep her in the shadows much of the time.

Miss Cabot is equally at home in her role as the countess, a character sometimes portrayed with tragic solemnity. Miss Cabot's countess, indeed, has her somber moments. Yet, at the thought of winning back her wandering husband, Miss Cabot lights up and turns into a different person, ready to give things another shot — and the opera a dramatic lift. She sings the countess with maturity and poise — and is convincing at the top and clear at the bottom of her impressive range. Her perfectly controlled and heartfelt performance of her signature aria "Dove Sono i Bei Momenti" (Are Those Wonderful Moments Over?") was easily the best party piece of the evening, even while being nicely underplayed.

Mozart loaded "Figaro" with plenty of meaty parts, and none is more winning than the "trouser role" of the hormone-plagued teen-ager Cherubino. One of opera's great comic figures, Cherubino gets caught in compromising situations in every act. Mezzo-soprano Kristine Jepson is appropriately frantic in the role, and it's hard to know what to appreciate more — her fine, well-supported voice or her talent for slapstick comedy.

Bass Simone Alberghini has a lovely, expressive voice, but he could have been a more convincing Figaro. The role in Mozart's opera is not as dominant as it is in Rossini's, and perhaps this is part of the reason for Mr. Alberghini's performance.

Jorge Lagunes was more convincing as the count, and his dramatic aria, "Vedro Mentr'io Sospiro," expresses rage at his continued amorous setbacks and a desire for revenge against the crafty Figaro. At times, however, Mr. Lagunes — perhaps at the suggestion of the director — seems to modulate his anger at crucial moments, robbing the role of some of its comic bluster.

Smaller roles were all handled with aplomb. This is fortunate, since Mozart's opera has more than the usual number of large ensembles whose success depends on having first-stringers in second-string roles. Mezzo-soprano Carla Rae Cook (Marcellina), tenor Robert Baker (Don Basilio) and baritone William Parcher (Doctor Bartolo) are splendid, and their efforts give a real lift to this production in the crucial final scenes.

Glitches? Opening night always has a few. The only ones that proved really irritating were some awkward set changes, during which the annoyed and willful bellowing of the stagehands could be heard all the way to the back of the Opera House.{*}{*}{*}WHAT: The Washington Opera's production of "The Marriage of Figaro" (different cast members appear during the final four performances)WHERE: The Kennedy Center Opera House, F Street and New Hampshire Avenue NWWHEN: 8 p.m. Tuesday, Friday, March 30 and April 4; and 7 p.m. March 26, April 2 and April 7TICKETS: $63 to $259PHONE: 202/295-2400

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