Monday, February 8, 2010

Opera San Jose's "Marriage of Figaro"

February 6, 2010

Thanks to stage director Peter Kozma, the folks at Opera San Jose have themselves a raucous and merry "Marriage of Figaro." In Figaro's "Non piu andrai" - poking fun at teen lothario Cherubino's exile to the military - the pair employ two small trunks as barricades and suffer a fusillade of lingerie hand grenades from Susanna, who in turn dies a tiwrling, agonizing death from a camisole missile. Picture a whole opera of this stuff. Kozma leaves no comic stone unturned, and he also encourages a high level of physicality; you've never seen a cast so fond of fondling, and slapping each other silly.

The current group of OSJ residents is well-tailored to this opera, beginning with soprano Khori Dastoor, who occupies ever cell of Susanna, housemaid eye of playwright Beaumarchais' storm. The only small complaint is her tone, which seems too covered for Susanna's traditionally saucy lyric - except, oddly, in the recitatives and the final aria, "Deh vieni, non tardar," which takes on a pleasing sultriness.

A similar tradeoff comes with baritone Brian Leerhuber, who lacks the low end for his opening aria, "Se vuol ballare," but whose agility in the higher spaces enables a nimble "Non piu andrai" and a hilarious, fast-paced "Aprite un po queglocchi," Figaro's pointed rant on womanhood. His physical gags are excellent, from a dead fall during the "Sua madre" revelation to the cuckold torments of the garden scene.

I have already developed the belief that mezzo Betany Coffland can do no wrong on a stage, and this, her first trouser role, is further evidence. Coffland plays Cherubino as the traditional cad-in-training, but one who literally cannot keep his eyes off the Countess whenever she's in the room. This bluster/blush dichotomy is a perfect summary of male teenhood, and her rendition of a boy "running like a girl" is freakin' hilarious. "Non so piu" and "Voi che sapete" are just the hummable delights one would expect, especially the touching coda of the former.

The striking thing about our royals is that they look so royal. Perhaps baritone Krassen Karagiozov is cheating, importing his classical features from Bulgaria, but he also plays well as the everfrustrated Count Dawg, er, Almaviva, especially during the jealous furies of the closet scene.

Soprano Rebecca Davis projects her nobility with graceful features and eyes that seem to radiate from the stage. She takes one of the most pathos-equipped characters in opera (especially for those who know "The Barber of Seville") and delivers in spades, employing an impressive dynamic range - from fill-the-hall forte to lean-forward piano - to shape the tender phrases of "Porgi Amor" and "Dove sono." Then, just as you're feeling gorged with music, she pairs with Susanna for "Che soave zeffiretto," the most delicious female harmonies this side of "Lakme."

It was great to have founding conductor David Rohrbaugh behind the podium, although he seemed to be having a little tempo-debate with our fiances in the opening scene. I could listen to Bartolo, bass Silas Elash, sing the phone book and be happy for hours (or perhaps a few Darth Vader quotes). Baritone Bill Welch, meanwhile, adds to his growing list of screwballs (see Guillot in September's "Manon") with the raving, purple-wigged one-man party of Don Basilio. The woodsy screen behind Larry Hancock's garden set is sublime, as was another earth-colored concoction, the Count's rococo dressing gown in Act II (costume coordinator Alyssa Oania).

I do realize that Opera San Jose has a tradition of cutting their operas to size, but the garden scene of the Count seducing his own wife when he thinks he's seducing Susanna (cited by Salieri as an example of Mozart's genius in the play "Amadeus") was sorely missed. It's an irresistible moment of conflict, sadness and humor all in one.

Through Feb. 21, California Theater, 345 S. First Street, San Jose, CA. $51-$91, 408/437-4450, Alternating casts.

Opera San Jose will begin its '10-'11 season with the West Coast premiere of David Carlson's 2007 "Anna Karenina" (Sept. 11-26) followed by "Tosca" (Nov. 13-18), "The Barber of Seville" (Feb. 12-27) and "La Boheme" (April 23-May 8).
Photo by Chris Ayers.

Michael J. Vaughn is a 25-year opera critic and author of ten novels. His latest, "The Monkey Tribe," is available at