CCM Opera’s “Le nozze di Figaro” reviewed, the women behind the production & the jewel that is CCM
Youthful interpretation of ‘Figaro’ refreshing
Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” has been called the perfect comic opera. At its most basic, it is a witty bedroom farce of misplaced kisses, intercepted letters and mistaken identities involving a Count with a wandering eye and his houseful of clever servants. But beneath the surface, “Figaro” is also one of the most profound achievements of Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. There are issues of class struggle, as well as real love and forgiveness. The opera provides not only a rollicking night of theater, but also beautiful melodies, glorious ensembles and ravishing arias such as the Countess’ despairing and luminous “Dove sono.” It’s a staple of major opera houses. So it was refreshing to see the youthful interpretation presented Friday night by the promising opera students at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music, in the intimate surroundings of Patricia Corbett Theater.
Throughout the comic scenes, the intrigue and the moments of reflection, the human nature of the characters shone through, thanks to the inventive, lively and intelligent staging by
Robin Guarino, chair of the opera department. And because “Figaro” is an ensemble opera, it was ideal for this young cast consisting of uniformly fine voices and several standouts, who impressed Friday’s sold-out audience. (The production has two different casts.) The upstairs-downstairs plot involves the impending wedding of the servants Figaro (Noel Bouley) and Susanna (Xi Wang). The philandering Count (Luis Alejandro Orozco) has designs on Susanna, to the distress of the Countess (Meghan Tarkington). She enlists the help of the servantsand the page, Cherubino (Audrey Walstrom), to teach the Count a lesson.
Bouley communicated easily with a firm, attractive voice, and gave a heartfelt performance as Figaro. He was convincing, whether rolling passionately on the marital bed with Susanna, facing off with his boss or conveying the torment of a betrayed lover in his Act IV aria, “Aprite un po’ quegli’ occhi” (Open your eyes) warning men about women. Orozco cut a charismatic figure as the lecherous Count Almaviva. His Count swaggered with a touch of cruelty. He projected an imposing presence, both vocally and dramatically, and his facial expressions (one of the benefits of a small theater) were memorable. As the Countess Almaviva, Tarkington brought dignity and a penetrating soprano to the role of the unjustly neglected wife. She delivered a touching “Porgi, amor” and later, a beautifully felt “Dove sono.” Wang was charming as the young bride Susanna. Her pure-toned soprano and gentle expression were ideal for her Act IV love song, “Deh vieni, non tardar” (Oh come, don’t delay). And in the “pants role,” Walstrom brought out the awkward ardor of the lovelorn Cherubino. One of the evening’s highlights was her “Voi che sapete.”
Thomas Umfrid’s set design – high walls with tall windows, which seamlessly changed from indoors to outdoors — beautifully captured the faded luster of the aristocratic villa. The garden scene, which is often a hodge-podge of figures in the dark, was magical. A spectacular tree with hanging lanterns descended and centered the stage, with a black, fiber-optic curtain simulating twinkling stars as a backdrop.
Mozart’s witty ensembles included fine performances in secondary roles: Jill Phillips portrayal of Marcellina was funny and Thomas Richards was fine as Bartolo. Ian Jose Ramirez played Basilio as an annoying musician Rounding out the cast, Sakinah A. Davis made a charming Barbarina, and Dashiell Waterbury was fine as Don Curzio. Guarino made the entrance of the gardener (Timothy J. Bruno) very funny. The chorus of peasants performed well and added life to the stage. It was only in the orchestra pit that we were reminded these were students. In fact, the musicians were all undergraduates. There were a few rough edges in the strings, and times when stage and pit were not quite together.
Still, the overture bristled with energy, and throughout the evening, the winds and brass were quite good. The atmospheric, light accompaniment to Cherubino’s “Voi che sapete” was lovely. Conductor Annunziata Tomaro led persuasively, and her tempos propelled the music well.
In ‘Figaro,’ women rule!
Something unusual is taking place behind the scenes in the production of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” running through Sunday in Patricia Corbett Theater at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. The conductors, director, master coach, stage manager and the production head are all women. In addition, women are taking charge backstage in costumes, wigs and makeup, props, and even choreographing fight scenes. In all, 10 women are working in leadership roles behind the scenes of “Figaro.” (That doesn’t count two women performing as concertmaster, and two others on fortepiano). Women are slowly making strides in classical music, taking on roles that, throughout history, traditionally went to men – such as the conductor, opera director and concertmaster of the orchestra. Mozart’s opera, based on a French comedy by Beaumarchais, takes place on a single day of madness in the palace of Count Almaviva, as the French Revolution is brewing. We spoke to “Figaro” director Robin Guarino, who holds the J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair in Opera at CCM, and to conductor and faculty member Annunziata Tomaro, who was awarded an “outstanding woman conductor” grant by the League of American Orchestras in 2010.
Question: How did you happen to have so many women in prominent roles behind the scenes in “Figaro”?
Guarino: We didn’t do it intentionally. But it really is interesting. I think it happens here at CCM because we have strong female role models. We’re coming from the highest levels of the profession, and we really love to teach, but also love to mentor. That’s the case with Annunziata, who has mentored Huan Jing (who will conduct one performance). Then we have Marie-France LeFebvre, who’s the master coach. I met her at the Metropolitan Opera, when she was the assistant conductor for “Figaro” at the Met, and I directed it. Then you have Michele Kay, head of production and the chair of the theater department. All of a sudden, you have all these women in key positions who are very much supporting the advancement and nurturing of women.
Q: How tough is it for women to succeed at the top in classical music?
Guarino: As a woman, it is so competitive that you have to walk in the room and know that you’re going to be better than everyone in the room. Just to succeed as a concertmaster, as a woman conductor, as a woman director – you have to be up on your game, and you have to master your material. You have to be better. That’s what I think is happening. Women are getting stronger and feeling more confident.
Tomaro: Certainly, the world, in part, is more open and willing to see women in roles they haven’t seen before. But those expectations are perhaps different or greater. So the possibility is there, but the process of achieving is still challenging.
Q: Why is “The Marriage of Figaro” sometimes called the most perfect opera?
Tomaro: It is such a gem. It has perfect arias. It has perfect ensembles. The Second Act finale has to be the highest representation of that form. It was so common for the midpoint of the opera to have the high-point of confusion, and (Mozart) mastered that.
Q: Looking at the women of “Figaro,” how do you see the character of Susanna, the maid?
Guarino: Everyone loves her because she’s always working, always thinking, kind and generous. She’s the perfect partner for Figaro. They haven’t had formal education and the benefits of class and aristocracy, but they are loved by people from all classes. Their very liberty and independence and their spirit – we’re on the edge of the whole world exploding in the French Revolution. Those are the risks right now, and you want to root for them all. And Susanna is the heart of that couple.
Q: What’s the most challenging for the conductor?
Tomaro: What’s hard in general about Mozart opera is finding the right tempi that work for the dramatic action, but also for the style of the music and the types of singers who are singing. You need to find the right transparency, but also the energy, as well. That’s a challenge and always shifting and dependent on the situation.
Q: Thomas Umfrid’s set designs are beautiful. What were you trying to achieve?
Guarino: I wanted it to be realistic in architecture and feeling and in period, but very human. … It has the aristocratic scale of the villa, but you feel that its time has passed, the paint is crackling, and there’s a little bit of disrepair. You’ll look at the set and say, “Oh, that’s the Countess’ room.” It’s about human beings, in a situation, in a time of life, in a time of history that is about to erupt. And it is about basic core human rights and values. We wanted that humanity to come out.
Can CCM stay a jewel?
Mezzo-soprano Audrey Walstrom of Los Alamos, N.M., could have gone anywhere in the country to study voice. But she chose the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music. “It has an excellent reputation in the voice world because the teachers are excellent,” said Walstrom, 26. “For me, it just felt like a great fit.” Attracting students such as Walstrom, who’s working on a graduate degree, is a key to CCM’s future as one of the premier music schools in the country. CCM helps to put this region in the cultural big leagues. It has connections to both the community and the broader world – from the Preparatory Department where parents take their children for piano, ballet or acting lessons, to its graduates who star on the world’s greatest stages. Audiences can see an astonishing 1,000 performances at CCM each year, many of them free.
Locally, CCM offers an incredible pool of talent – not only conductors, musicians, dancers, composers and music teachers, but also executives running important media outlets, such as the CEO of Cumulus Radio Group, which operates five stations in Cincinnati. But keeping CCM among the elite won’t be easy. UC is bracing for budget cuts of up to 20 percent next year, which would restrict the classes it can offer, the professors it can attract and the students it can lure with scholarships. CCM also is strapped with a $4.9 million loan it must pay off for its new fleet of Steinway pianos. The college is under particular pressure because it depends on private donations to fund scholarships for students choosing among the nation’s top music schools. If it’s forced to cut the nearly $15 million it pays out in scholarships each year, many of those most talented students will go elsewhere. CCM leaders know that raising more money to fund more scholarships is the best path to remaining elite. Meanwhile, department chairs are going through budgets to determine where they can make worst-case scenario cuts. “It’s getting to the critical point,” interim Dean Frank Weinstock said. “For CCM to stay where it is, private funds are going to become more and more necessary. Scholarship dollars are paramount. We just need more.” UC’s top officials have pledged to try to protect CCM and other high-profile programs in budget talks this spring and to keep funneling money to scholarships. “I know it’s a jewel at UC,” said the university’s new provost, Santa Ono, who played cello and piano as a child in the Preparatory Division of the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore. “It’s one of our key assets. I’m committed to doing everything I can to protect that position nationally. I haven’t made a final decision, but I’ve made it very clear that I won’t do something simple-minded like across-the-board cuts.” Ono has launched a search for a new CCM dean. The creative vitality of CCM’s graduates is the currency it carries into the marketplace, but that’s a hard thing to measure in dollars. CCM’s assets are considerable. It occupies a $93.2 million complex on UC’s main campus and welcomed a record enrollment of 1,468 students this year.
Last fall, 713 applicants vied for 20 musical theater slots, while 434 singers competed for 43 opera graduate-school spots. CCM has turned out dozens of performers with international resumes, from household names such as Broadway star Faith Prince to recent rising stars such as Xian Zhang, the first woman appointed to the conducting staff of the New York Philharmonic. But the financial pressures it faces are intense, one factor that helped drive the former dean, Douglas Knehans, out of the job last year after he feuded with faculty. In contrast to some UC colleges that rely mostly on students from this region, CCM faces pressure to attract students from throughout the nation. It operates in rarefied air where music schools battle for the best students, with the best offer usually winning. “It’s a cause for concern for everyone,” said Earl Rivers, director of CCM’s choral studies program and head of ensembles and conducting. “There are some schools in the country that are able to fully fund their students, such as Yale. And we compete with them in the choral department. We do fully fund some of our students (about 70 percent) but we can’t fund them all.” Roberto Diaz, president and CEO of the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia, said CCM “has a terrific reputation as one of the really important music schools in this country. “Ultimately, it’s the faculty that makes the school important,” he said, “not its affiliation to other institutions.” Curtis is an elite music school with just 165 students – all on full scholarship. “It’s so competitive with music schools now,” Diaz said. “Students are auditioning for four, five and six schools, and there are terrific teachers in all of these schools. They’ll make their decision (based on) getting into the right studio and how much scholarship they’re offered.” During a recent stroll across the CCM grounds in the heart of UC’s main campus, the sounds of trumpets, pianos and violins drifted from Memorial Hall across the plaza of CCM Village, a complex designed by master architect Henry Cobb. In the nearby Dieterle Vocal Arts Center, overlooking Nippert Stadium, opera singers were staging scenes from “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Inside Corbett Center for the Performing Arts, students were studying music history, theory and composition in technologically advanced “smart classrooms.” At the other end of the center, budding theater designers were painting sets and creating costumes. A basement rehearsal room buzzed with the sounds of the Jazz Ensemble. Upstairs, ballet dancers rehearsed, actors learned their lines and musical theater babies tapped out routines for Broadway auditions. In a state-of-the-art electronic media center, media wizards edited their own films. CCM measures its success by its stars. Its graduates populate concert halls, opera stages and Broadway shows, help produce TV shows and movies and compose symphonies and film scores. Locally, the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra has more than a dozen CCM graduates among its ranks. Musical theater alumni who have been on Broadway include Karen Olivo, Tony Award winner for the recent “West Side Story” revival, and Leslie Kritzer, whose Broadway resume includes featured roles in “Legally Blonde,” “A Catered Affair” and “Sondheim on Sondheim.” Many of CCM’s opera grads join prestigious young artist programs with major opera companies. Behind the scenes, faculty members say, they are learning to make do with less. Said Robin Guarino, who holds the J. Ralph Corbett Distinguished Chair in Opera, supported by the school’s largest endowment fund: “Obviously there’s concern about the endowment, because the economic situation is forcing us to be extremely hands-on with our budget, but also to be creative and work together. “It’s cut-to-the-chase time.”