by Richard Houdek
THE BERKSHIRE EAGLE
PITTSFIELD — If Mozart and his favorite librettist Da Ponte were assembling their masterpiece "Le Nozze di Figaro" today, instead of nearly 225 years ago, their scenario might have included teenagers cradling cell phones, vengeful women composing mischievous notes on laptops and carefree peasant girls transporting carry-out on skateboards, to say nothing of gentlemen wielding golf clubs and badminton rackets.
So, welcome to Figaro's nuptial tale according to Gregory Keller, the forward-looking stage director who has mounted a show that, like his modernist "Madama Butterfly" three summers ago, may elicit some clucking and quaking among purists, but also serves as a reminder that opera, after all, is entertainment.
Keller has brought the opera up reasonably close to our contemporary world, while retaining the customs and traditions documented by the 18th-century Beaumarchais play on which it is based.
Dipu Gupta, also of the "Butterfly" team, has created a neo-traditional roll-out set for the Count's chateau, rich with symbolism, which becomes more expansive with each act.
Berkshire Opera's major strength over the years has resided in the vocal and acting skills of the artists on its stages. This "Figaro" ensemble is especially rich in these endowments, a tribute to the casting acumen of Kathleen Kelly, the company's artistic director.
Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny brought a solid and richly burnished bass-baritone, along with the confidence of a prince, to the title role. He is a real find. Soprano Suzanne Ramo has an unusually large vocal instrument for a Susanna that nevertheless spun smooth delicacy in the lyricism of the earlier acts and produced gorgeous darker tones for her big Act IV aria, "Deh, viene non tardar."
Like McKinny, baritone Liam Bonner proved an ideal casting decision. As the philandering Count Almaviva, the tall and slender Bonner has a resonant, superbly supported vocal instrument, and he invested exactly the right measure of imperious arrogance to the role of the nobleman-in-charge. His Act II aria, "Vedrò mentr'io sospiro," explained with supreme assurance precisely who he was.
Maureen O'Flynn, who has traveled the world as Lucia, Gilda, Juilliet, and Susanna, now has a fresh new triumph to add to her amazing career, in her first trouser role as one of the most convincing Cherubinos in memory. The hormones are just bursting out of O'Flynn's young teenage page. The vocal line, including those two arias, "Non so più" and "Voi, que sapete," are entirely comfortable for O'Flynn who has dwelled in the stratosphere so many times elsewhere, but, along the way, has developed strong middle and bottom registers.
As the Countess, soprano Tamara Wilson displayed a voice of Verdi proportions, entirely suitable for the role, delivering moving performances of both the plaintive "Porgi amor" and the hopeful "Dove sono."
But size also matters in other ways. Wilson's considerable figure militates against a major premise of the opera — that the Count turns away from his diminutive Rosina due to a serial wandering eye. The limits of credulity are stretched, both in the Count's returning to his wife following his many escapades in other beds, and the Countess' disguise as Susanna in the garden. There is little chance of mistaking the two. This is a delicate issue, but it must be faced. The world of opera has changed and a young singer, especially of Wilson's obvious vocal gifts, also must resemble the heroines she is impersonating on the stage. Entirely fair? Perhaps not. But that's the way of our Hollywood-sensitized world obsessed with physical perfection.
As Marcellina, mezzo Fenlon Lamb, pert in her tight skirt and coiffed in flaming red, could be a mature Beverly Hills sex-pot, and one imagines Dr. Bartolo, bass Jason Hardy, practicing surgery of the plastic kind in the same community. The two were hilarious in their lost-son discovery scene.
Tenor Jason Ferrante seems to brighten every stage he mounts, giving extra significance to Don Basilio, the music teacher with a clear yen for Cherubino, and later Don Curzio, the stammering lawyer; Ferrante's timing is impeccable.
Claude Corbeil, the great bass-baritone, had reportedly suffered a bronchial attack, but he gamely went on as Antonio, the Count's tipsy gardener, demonstrating, in a really mirthful portrayal, that he knows well his way around a stage.
Substituting for Courtenay Budd, Alison Trainer was a charming Barbarina, Antonio's daughter and a pivotal character in uncovering the Count's perfidious ways.
Presiding from the pit, Kelly welds nicely the sometimes thin-sounding textures of the Berkshire Opera Orchestra with the proceedings on stage, and doubtlessly is responsible for some of the elegant additional ornamentation heard in the arias of both the Countess and Susanna.
Arias, such as those of the Count and Countess in Act III, and the ensembles at the end of the final three acts, work especially well due to Keller's deft, choreographic staging.
"Figaros" come and go with frequency in large and small opera houses over the world every year, but this is, with little doubt, one of the most entertaining. You may regret missing it.