THE BASICS: Nickel City Opera, in their 7th Season, presents Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” with two performances, Friday, June 26th at 7:30pm and Sunday, June 28th at 2:30pm at The Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster Street, North Tonawanda, NY. Sung in Italian with English supertitles, fully staged with professional singers and orchestra. Run time: Almost three hours including one 20 minute intermission. 716.692.2413 or rivieratheatre.org
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: “The Marriage of Figaro,” not performed in Buffalo for over 30 years, is considered by some to be THE greatest opera ever composed, and a “must see.” Nickel City’s first offering, which I remember fondly from 7 years ago, was Rossini’s opera “The Barber of Seville” – a sort of “prequel” to Mozart’s opera (just as Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” uses some of the same characters in what could be a “sequel.”) Mozart’s opera was adapted from the Beaumarchais play “The Marriage of Figaro” which was banned in Europe for inciting rebellion amongst the lower classes against the nobles. The farcical events (disguises, people jumping out of windows, mistaken identities) take place within a single day and revolve around a master of the castle, Count Almaviva, versus his servants, the wily Figaro and the clever Susanna who are to be married. The Count has previously abandoned the old “Right of the Nobles” (droit de seigneur), the law whereby the king or any manor owning royalty can have sex with any bride before she marries. Count Almaviva would like to reenact the old rule because of his infatuation with Susanna. The entire opera revolves around Figaro and Susanna (and the long suffering Countess Almaviva, for that matter) trying to stop the Count from achieving this, usually in very funny ways, but there are bittersweet moments, especially in scenes with the Countess, who fondly recalls the early years of her marriage. Note: one of those scenes includes the famous duet between the Countess and Susanna, “Sull’aria” which is featured in the Academy Award winning film “The Shawshank Redemption.”
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION:
This is the best Nickel City Opera (NCO) production to date. Don’t miss it. It’s really, really good. And that hasn’t always been the case with NCO. The overall ensemble balance between the singers was even, the orchestra sounded more robust than usual, and all of the “details” – the set, the costumes, the lighting, all came together this time. And the new Riviera projector made the super-titles (which were very cleverly written) come to life. If you have avoided NCO because of some mis-steps in the past (the most recent “Amahl and the Night Visitors” and 2011’s “Il Trovatore” were painful) then this time you will be missing a wonderful treat.
Three singers deserve special praise right at the top. As Figaro, Valerian Ruminski put his well-known ego on hold and instead brought forth all of his art, craft, and experience from singing on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera and around the globe. He was believable, nuanced, and really quite funny during the comic bits, all of which happen in ensemble, where it would ruin the moment to ham it up. This was his moment; it’s a big role requiring great acting chops and Ruminski brought all of his skills to bear.
Young Jena Abati stood out as Barbarina, which is an ingénue role with music composed by a man who loved sopranos (Mozart first fell in love with Aloisa Weber, but when she became unavailable he married her sister, Constance Weber, both highly regarded singers of their day). Abati’s voice and demeanor were perfect for the role. Abati is currently studying to be a Physician’s Assistant, we hope that she’ll stay in Buffalo for years to come.
Ray Chenez sings the role of Cherubino, the teenage boy who falls in love with anything wearing a skirt (although he’s finally reigned in by Barbarina). Usually this is a “pants role,” meaning that a soprano plays the part. Chenez is a counter-tenor, singing the entire role using the male falsetto voice, which is a rare treat. And, he can act.
Also notable were Jessica Best as Marcellina and Maria Teresa Magisano as Countess Rosina. However, while the countess’s famous “Dove sono” (in which she wonders what happened to the blissful marriage she once enjoyed) was serviceable as was her “Sull’aria” duet with Amy Grable (also a nostalgic moment), neither rose to the sublime level that opera goers have come to expect. I suspect that may have something to do with the orchestra, which, due to the limited space in the Riviera pit, just cannot hold enough string players. Even if you don’t consider yourself a classical music maven, you must have heard the Nelson Riddle arrangements for Frank Sinatra. You can’t create that kind of magic with only five violins.
However, even with only 18 players, this was the best orchestra that NCO has assembled to date. With Mozart, as with Beethoven, it’s all in the woodwinds. And check out this lineup: Marlene Witnauer, flute; Susie Myers, oboe; Sal Andolina (yes!) and Andrea Runfola, clarinets; Ellen Barnum, bassoon; and Tim Schwartz and Rose Valby, horns. Holy Amadeus! These cats can play. And what holds a great combo together? Drums and bass. A special shout-out goes to Andrew Ziemba, tympani and Paul Zapalowski, double bass.
And a special kudo to Michael Ching, not only the waving your arms around conductor, but also the harpsichord player for the recitative (spoken) portions, just as it was done in Mozart’s day. Very impressive. While I usually despise electronic instruments, I don’t think that they could have fit a real harpsichord into the pit. Also, unlike a real harpsichord which, being all wooden, is almost impossible to keep in tune, the electronic harpsichord serve as a constant and consistent “pitch pipe” to the rest of the orchestra, which I believe led to a more cohesive sound.
Unfortunately, and perhaps because my expectations may have been too high, I didn’t think that Buffalo favorite (and mine too) baritone James Wright was quite the Count Almaviva that I wanted. With his matinee idol good looks and smooth baritone voice, Jim didn’t quite fit the role of the disreputable aging womanizer and really crappy husband. I believe that we are supposed to dislike the Count and all that he represents. And because everyone who’s acquainted with Jim knows he’s such a really nice guy, it was almost impossible to believe him in the role. I think in 10 years, Jim might make a great Don Giovanni, and could pull off that trick that actors Larry Hagman (“Dallas”) and Jon Voigt (“Anaconda”) accomplished, going from “good guy” to “bad guy” in a manner that audiences accept, even though it shocks them.
The set was ideal and cleverly used (and cleverly recycled from the opera “Don Pasquale” two seasons ago). The lighting by Derek Heckler was sensitive to the mood, and the wigs and make-up (Georgiznna Eberhard and Elaine Rubach), and costumes (DC Theatricks/Jodi Mancuso) were very, very convincing.
After the Sunday afternoon, June 28th performance, the next project for NCO is a new, 21st century opera, “Shot!” by Persis Vehar. Let’s hope the momentum keeps going.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!