Eugene Weekly : Opera : 12.24.2009


First Comes Marriage
Eugene Opera opens starry season with Mozart
by Suzi Steffen

The windows are papered over, the day gray and cold. But inside the old Tiffany’s drugstore in downtown Eugene, the room heats up as the principals of Eugene Opera’s The Marriage of Figaro step into character for rehearsal.

Nicholas Isherwood, Margaret Gawrysiak, Joelle Harvey and Lee Gregory sing for joy. Photo by Jeff Ozvold

Chris Burchett tells off Jason Ferrante. Photo by Jeff Ozvold

Conductor (and opera music advisor) Andrew Bisantz raises his baton, rehearsal pianist Sandy Holder readies her hands, stage director Nicola Bowie lifts her pen to take notes — and six of the main characters burst into a gorgeous sextet. The pros restrain their voices to keep from blasting those of us sitting directly in front of them, but Mozart’s music for Riconosci in questo amplesso una madre (“Recognize a mother in this hug”) soars around the concrete and glass space.

Preparing for the New Year’s Eve opening of Figaro means hours of rehearsal with Mozart’s complex music and all of the Italian lyrics, but Mark Beudert, Eugene Opera’s executive director, says this year’s cast couldn’t be better. They’re professional, he says, and “they’re just sharp.”

Figaro’s book and music make a complex but enjoyable piece to watch (and, of course, hear). Beudert says that the principals and chorus must remain alert and engaged at all times. “You always have to think when you do Mozart, and you always have to be alive because he’s always alive,” Beudert says, adding that this is a joy rather than a struggle. 

Figaro, a satire about aristocratic behavior and a nigh-on Shakespearean comedy of mistaken identities, runs the gamut from slapstick to poignant meditations on aging and the loss of love. Figaro serves as the head of staff to the perfidious Count Almaviva, and various characters set into motion the sexual machinations of a debauched 18th-century household. Secret notes, daring last-minute escapes and more make the plot nervewrackingly ridiculous, something like a modern movie farce but with incredible music. “People should come in wanting to be entertained,” Beudert says.

Much of that entertainment flows from the skills of the principals, who move nimbly among scenes, know their blocking cold and seem perfectly comfortable acting, singing and dancing as I watch rehearsal.

Those principals include soprano Kelly Kaduce as the most sympathetic character of all, Countess Almaviva. Kaduce, a rising star in the tight-knit opera world, performed in Portland Opera’s La Boheme in September, and Oregonian classical music critic David Stabler wrote, “It was Kelly Kaduce, who sang Mimi with gorgeous, open lyricism, who made the magic happen.” Lee Gregory plays Figaro, and those who attended last March’s Don Giovanni will remember Gregory as an excellent Leporello (he’s also married to Kaduce, which didn’t hurt in the recruiting process). Baritone Christopher Burchett (Masetto in March’s Don Giovanni) plays a fit, tightly wound Count, whose jealousy, desire and regret consume him. Rounding out the list: Eugene Opera faves Joelle Harvey as Susanna and Amanda Crider as Cherubino, popular and funny character singer Jason Ferrante, UO prof and early music expert Nicholas Isherwood, Glimmerglass and Seattle Opera Young Artist Margaret Gawrysiak and local faves Sandy Naishtat and Brooke Cagno.

For those with kids, the Eugene Opera has a special Jan. 2 performance called “Figaro for the Family,” in which young ones can learn the plot and a little bit of the music as well as details about the set, costumes, blocking and more before intermission. After intermission, the full cast comes out to give the kids a rousing finish with Act IV, when all of the couples find some way to reunite in the Count’s garden. Tickets to the family performance won’t break the bank at $18 for adults and $9 for children.

Though the full opera can be rather long — the UO’s performance at LCC a few years ago tested audience patience with three lengthy intermissions —Beudert says director Bowie and conductor Bisantz know how to tighten everything up. After a run-through on Dec. 20, Beudert says, “the report was 2 hours and 59 minutes with a 25-minute intermission.” Completely doable.

Considering the number and range of arias (like Non più andrai, popular in cartoons but still splendid) and recitatives, not to mention the complexity of the story, that run time signals an exceptionally tight show. The music begins with a welcome familiarity: Most of the audience will know Figaro’s overture from countless movies and TV shows, not to mention high school symphony programs. 

Familiar local faces line the chorus, and Beudert makes a point to say that the Eugene Opera feels “very conscious of our place in the community.” At rehearsal, as stage manager Christopher Staub fixes a fan for one performer, staples up paper and answers questions from everyone, the rains begin outside, but the performers stay warm and focused on their task. “The process is just the way I like it, no hysteria,” Beudert says, “and the product is great.”

The Eugene Opera performs The Marriage of Figaro in Italian with English supertitles at 7:30 pm Thursday, Dec. 31, and 2:30 pm Sunday, Jan. 3; Figaro for the Family begins at 2:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 2. All performances at the Hult Center, or 682-5000. $26-$69 for the opera; $18 and $9 for Figaro for the Family.