Among life’s clichés ‘masterpiece’ is likely one of the most overwrought, but Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) is one of a handful of geniuses who deserve the compliment in spades. Virtually all his music, particularly those works from the last years of his too short sojourn on this planet, are bona fide masterpieces.
Le Nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) composed in 1786 during a burst of creative energy facilitated by his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte (Don Giovanni, Cosè fan tutte), is as perfect a work of art as can be conceived by the human mind. UC Santa Barbara Opera Theatre brought its dazzling genius to sparkling life on February 8th and 10th with a fully staged production at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall on the seaside campus.
Featuring a cast and orchestra assembled from the Department of Music’s best and brightest - mostly grad students - and with directorial and additional musical assistance from faculty and guest professionals on stage and in the pit, the excitement on opening night was palpable.
From the first notes of the opera’s famous overture, conducted with insouciant flair and contagious vigor by Opera Santa Barbara Artistic and General Director Kostis Protopapas, the performance on February 8th flew by like an E ticket. On loan to UCSB Opera Theatre, maestro Protopapas was in firm but benign command, especially when he sat down at the harpsichord from time to time to dash off deliciously coy recitativo accompaniments throughout the evening.
Delighted appreciation for the musical jokes and discreet sight gags planted throughout the opera’s three hours occasioned frequent applause in support of UCSB’s wonderfully musical cast, which executed Mozart’s famous solo arias, duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, and choruses with studied and steady style and panache.
A number of those in attendance might have been experiencing a live opera performance for the first time, but a large group were seasoned opera buffs, followers of maestro Protopapas and his Opera Santa Barbara colleagues, who played strategic roles in making this Figaro special. Approval by opera nuts and neophytes alike, gave currency as well as acclamation to UCSB Opera Theatre’s high standard of preparation and performance.
Mozart gave the world a Figaro score of knockout tunefulness and stunning virtuosity. Despite the legendary opinion of Emperor Joseph II about too many notes, not a single hemidemisemiquaver is wasted or superfluous. Achieving artistic success in presenting such a delicate musical and theatrical soufflé takes coaching from a village of widely experienced production professionals.
The exciting snap, crackle, and pop that distinguished UCSB Opera Theatre’s Figaro indicated with exclamation points, this lucky cast enjoyed mentoring from some of the best in the business.
Soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian (Stage Director); tenor Benjamin Brecher (Music Director/Producer); Richard Adamson (Set Designer); Ben Crop (Lighting Designer); and Lise Lange (Costume Designer) lent their extensive collective experience in professional theatre and opera to this production. The result, sung in Italian no less, was a perfect synergy of intent, training, purpose, and polish.
Richard Adamson’s set design was clever. A revolving scene change capability made for efficient use of the small stage area at Lotte Lehmann Concert Hall and suited the set piece needs of this all too class conscious Da Ponte/Mozart propaganda piece. Placing the servant’s quarters at the center of Count Almaviva’s house - the eye of the storm, so to speak - Adamson conjured a kind of physical metaphysics on people’s revolutions that were just around the historical corner and about to rock Europeon status quo to its core.
Ben Crop’s experience in lighting several of Santa Barbara City College’s Garvin Theatre shows over many years gave him experiential wiggle room to explore lighting possibilities at Lotte Lehmann. Making color an ambient companion to mood, Crop’s lighting gave hue and ballast to Adamson’s set changes.
A stylish eighteenth century wardrobe on loan from opera/theatre friends on the east coast afforded Costume Designer Lise Lange several beautiful opportunities to match elegance and period to set and lighting design. Special thanks to Hair and Make-up Designer Sarah Flores for her expert wig fittings - very important.
Uncompromising directorial and musical leadership from UCSB Assistant Professor of Voice soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian and tenor Benjamin Brecher, Head of the Voice Area at UCSB gave stellar cachet to this production, top down.
Bayrakdarian’s many professional engagements with opera companies around the world singing works from the major repertoire including Figaro, has given her a canny eye for artistic as well as comedic detail.
Bayrakdarian’s staging was all about movement - sensible, conversational, natural movement.The action flowed accordingly, with several comedic episodes and neatly choreographed mis-adventures set up by Bayrakdarian and Brecher in the manner of good theatre - the gags pressed subtly - comedy as confection.
Together, artistic team Brecher and Bayrakdarian assembled an ideal vocal cast for this Figaro. Baritone Byron Mayes (MM/DMA) in the title role was rich in stage presence and ripe of voice - deep, projecting, mature, and rounded. Soprano Naomi Merer (MM/DMA) as Figaro’s fiancée Susanna, brought a masterful sense of comedic verisimilitude to her role and championed a voice that grew in warmth and consonance as the evening progressed.
Peruvian-American soprano Kelly Newberry (DMA) created a sensation in the pants role of Cherubino, not only for her superb voice but also her captivating stage presence. Likewise, bass-baritone E. Scott Levin, who has enjoyed an active professional career since 2002. His Doctor Bartolo was a lesson in delicious comedic effect; a perfection of professionalism and charm that had to have inspired his younger colleagues.
Soprano Julie Davies (DMA) brought her fulsome and beautifully supported voice to the role of Countess Almaviva, while baritone Tyler Reece (DMA) contributed not a little comedic skill and solid singing to his role as Count Almaviva. Mezzo-soprano Molly Clementz (Marcellina); tenor Zachary Mendez (Don Curzio/Basilio); soprano Carol Tsai (Barbarina); bass Byron Wu (Antonio); and a delightful women’s chorus of Alexandra Lopez, Alexandria Jackson, Cloe Gentile, and Terra Giddens rounded out the excellent cast.
Westmont College Theatre Arts Chair John Blondell has been producing innovative plays at the college’s sylvan campus in Santa Barbara since 1988. Co-founder and director of the award-winning international theatre ensemble Lit Moon Theatre Company, which is also based in Santa Barbara, Blondell has enjoyed additional opportunity to shift the interpretive sands under preconceived notions about dozens of traditional classics like Peer Gynt, Hamlet, Through the Looking Glass, and Tartuffe, to name but a handful of over 80 productions he has directed over the years with that professional company in cities around the globe. He has garnered a raft of awards as a result of his innovative re-thinking of the same old same old. Bottom line, Blondell is no lightweight. His approach to the standard theatre repertory is sometimes controversial, always fresh.
Last year, the Music and Theatre Arts Departments at Westmont teamed to present the college’s first fully staged opera on campus. This year, Dr. Blondell and Adams Chair of Music and Worship Dr. Michael Shasberger, kicked things up a couple notches, asking for and receiving the blessing of Santa Barbara’s Ensemble Theatre Company to mount Johann Strauss II’s operetta Die Fledermaus (The Bat) at Ensemble’s New Vic Theater in the heart of downtown.
A perfect war horse for Blondell to tweak, Fledermaus has been going strong since its debut in Vienna in 1874. Traditionally performed throughout the world to ring in the New Year on account of its famously opulent ballroom scene, the operetta is chock-o-block with silly plot twists, misidentifications, disguises, practical jokes, pitiable pratfalls, and implausible resolutions. What saves Fledermaus, rather like Leonard Berstein’s Candide, are Strauss’ immortal waltz tunes and hummable arias, which have levitated audiences above the schlock for just under 150 years.
Snatching innovation from the jaws of orthodoxy, Blondell set his Fledermaus in modern dress. Nothing fancy, just here-and-now attire - what one might see on a college campus. The ballroom scene, rather than posh, has been transformed into a Halloween party - clever. And to make sure his audience would not miss the singular importance of tune over tumult, he has placed the orchestra in a starring role on stage. Sometimes Westmont’s scrappy little band, under Shasberger’s tight musical leadership, was down-stage (overture and first act). Another scene change found it house right, then up-stage.
Breaking the tradition of lavish costumes and nineteenth century Viennese glitz - a budget buster - Blondell has swept away baubles and bling to focus instead on black box simplicity. Lighting and technical director Jonathan Hicks has followed suit. Likewise, Yuri Okahana’s scenography.
Director Blondell, not surprisingly, adopted his famously eccentric Lit Moon aesthetic to this production of Fledermaus, pairing mostly discreet comedic touches and fascinating character eccentricities with off-the-wall visual accents. Choreographer Victoria Finlayson, for example, gave the ballroom scene a touch of oddment by having the guests dance alone, no partnering.
The chambermaid Adele (soprano Michelle Vera), displayed an occasional nervous tick, literally convulsing from time to time, particularly in her opening scene - go figure.
Alfred, the singing teacher (tenor Jon Lindsley), modeled perhaps on Gilbert and Sullivan’s Reginald Bunthorne, sported turf green fingernails. Frank, the prison governor (baritone Micah Anthony), was appropriately black-nailed - something about dungeons?
Chairs became harbingers on the bare, Our Town-inspired meta-theatrical set; rearranged, stacked, counted, danced on and around. All manner of magic act props livened the action and brought color to the chaos. Mad Hatter and garbage lid hats, Walpurgisnacht and bordello costumes descended from the loft on a hanging rack for the party scene which opened Act II, replacing traditional tailcoats and gowns with goofy irreverence as the guests dressed on stage for the occasion.
A Viewmaster and sunglasses somehow gave credence to one aria; the pants role character, Count Orlovsky (mezzo-soprano Elena White), sported a magic marker moustache; puppet animals cavorted; a handshake shtick made pithy homage to Laurel and Hardy; the focused thus hilarious poker face of Eisenstein’s wife Rosalinde (soprano Anna Telfer); provided a bountiful
cornucopia of delight that conspired to produce ripples, then tidal waves of audience laughter and delight on opening night.
The young Westmont College cast tackled some of the most difficult vocal music of the nineteenth century with heroic energy and spirited aplomb. Soprano Michelle Vera (chambermaid), was consistently splendid, both as actor and singer. Likewise, mezzo-soprano Elena White in the pants role of Orlovsky, a Russian Prince. Tenor/baritone Kenny Galindo (Gabriel von Eisenstein), tackled Strauss’ wide-ranging and often treacherous tessitura with courageous pluck, while soprano Anna Telfer (Rosalinde) grew more confident vocally as the evening progressed. Baritone John Butler’s Dr. Falke was notable for clean musical stylings and Tenor Jon Lindsley’s sweet warblings and gender neutral affectations - the G & S Bunthorne homage - reached the edge, but never went over the cliff of parody. Baritone Micah Anthony (Frank, the prison Governor), contributed his pleasing voice to the vocal menu as well.
The supporting cast - tenor Sean McElrath (Blind, an attorney); Logan Foltz in the speaking role of Yvan, the Prince’s Valet; soprano Jessica Lingua (Ida, Adele’s sister); Merckx Dascomb (Frogg, the jailer); Nina Fox (a jailer); and a bevy of well trained chorus members - helped create an entertainment that became curiouser and curiouser as the evening progressed. Herr Strauss would have been well pleased.