Figaro Getting Hitched on the Big Screen at Opera Philadelphia’s “Festival O 17”

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Opera Philadelphia’s “Festival O 17” (September 14 to 25) – including a free reprise of the company’s recent production of The Marriage of Figaro, to be shown in HD on Freedom Mall Jumbo Screens, September 23, 2017.

Opera Philadelphia is going out on the town this month.

This year’s highly anticipated Festival O 17 is underway. Twelve days of opera, now through September 25, in at least six different venues around Philadelphia, make all the city a stage. The production roster includes three world premieres, plus other important recent American works and some fun and novel takes on classics.

Here, There, Everywhere…

The venues range from the company’s traditional home base at the beautiful and historic Academy of Music, to the nearby Wilma Theater; the Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia’s unique art institution housing one of the world’s great collections of impressionist and modern art), to an outdoor presentation on famed Independence Mall – that expansive swath of federal parkland that stretches like a majestic lawn for three blocks north from the doorsill of Independence Hall and which boasts among its installations the original Liberty Bell and the National Constitution Center.

Oh, and not only is the Independence Mall event – on September 23 – in the location that accommodates by far the largest viewing audience; it’s also the event that will be absolutely free of charge to the public.

Free Figaro!

Opera Philadelphia’s recent new production of The Marriage of Figaro played the Academy of Music earlier this year (April 28 through May 7; viewed here at the May 7 closing). It was captured in a high-definition recording during the run and it’s that recording that will be shown on multiple Independence Mall jumbotrons on the evening of September 23, starting at 7 p.m. But the excitement starts even earlier, as the mall will host a multiple-attraction, family-friendly pre-show carnival replete with a “family fun zone,” an array of food trucks on hand, and even a pre-opera showing of the deliriously silly and witty vintage 1950 Looney Tunes/Bugs Bunny opus, Rabbit of Seville.

The main event – the broadcast of Opera Philadelphia’s production of The Marriage of Figaro – is directed with great visual sensibility and stylistic panache by veteran British opera director Stephen Lawless, and conducted by Opera Philadelphia’s peerless music director Corrado Rovaris. It’s a smart, rollicking take on Mozart’s grand runaround farce, set at the fictional Almaviva estate Aguas Frescas, about love, lust, fidelity, philandering, class relations, cross-dressing, and defenestration.

Seen live on stage, this production bore the rare distinction of seeming at once both very contemporary and very authentically 18th-century. Of course it’s little surprise that maestro Rovaris and his superlative Opera Philadelphia instrumental ensemble got the wit, grace, and slyly lickerish texture of the score so right; but it’s not every production of this deceptively sprightly Mozart/Da Ponte confection that rings so real in social milieu and so wisely forgiving of universal human foible. Yet all the sophisticated adult themes veined throughout the work are handled with arch sophistication and impeccable taste by Lawless and Rovaris. (The Bugs Bunny might be the evening’s more hazardous offering for children!)

The Folks at Aguas Frescas

Sopranos Ying Fang, as the resourceful servant, Susanna, and Layla Claire as her dejected mistress, Countess Almaviva, were ideal complements and collaborators to each other, each evincing gorgeous voices – the former a sound of bright and gleaming argent, the latter offering lustrously pearly tones.

Baritone John Chest as Count Almaviva was every inch the glamorous cad, his manner effortlessly patrician, his rich umber voice achieving by turns just the right seductive, anguished or rueful depths called for.

Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel as Figaro made incredibly nimble use of his big voice, defining with memorable specificity the many dynamic changes of the agile and razor-witted title character.

Other vivid performances were offered across the board by mezzo-soprano Cecelia Hall as the ultra-hormonal adolescent, Cherubino; bass-baritone Patrick Carfizzi as Bartolo; mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina; tenor Jason Ferrante as both Don Basilio and Don Curzio; soprano Ashley Milanese as Barbarina; and bass-baritone Thomas Shivone as Antonio.

Leslie Travers’ set designs were exemplary, with a profusion of elegant and so farce-worthy French windows and a dominating, moveable unit bearing an elaborately carved bas-relief of a gnarled tree, the branches of which sprouted with life-sized cameos of various aristocratic forebears – a brilliant visual correlative, perhaps, to a twisted moral inbreeding and dissipated fertility of the Almaviva line.

Travers also designed the production’s stunning costumes, while the beautiful lighting was by David Zimmerman.

Mozart and The American

It will be especially potent to view this opera’s lively 18th-century antics in the heart of so 18th-century a city as Philadelphia. After all, The Marriage of Figaro could be construed as an ironic gloss on a decidedly Philadelphia-born 18th-century phrase – “the pursuit of happiness.” And it’s worth noting, too, that Lorenzo Da Ponte – not only the librettist of Figaro and Mozart’s invaluable repeat collaborator, but a polymath man of letters, ideas, science and philosophy – later emigrated to the United States, became an American citizen, and was an associate of many of the leading intellectual circles of both New York and Philadelphia.

Be Ye Festive!

Other notable offerings in the current Festival O are Opera Philadelphia’s hosting of the Komische Oper Berlin production of another Mozart masterpiece, The Magic Flute; the world premiere of composer Kevin Puts’ and librettist Mark Campbell’s new opera, Elizabeth Cree; composer Daniel Bernard Roumain’s and librettist Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s opera We Shall Not Be Moved, another world premiere; War Stories, an evening which pairs a presentation of Monteverdi’s seminal Il combattimento di Tancredi e Clorinda with composer Lembit Beecher’s and librettist Hannah Moscovitch’s response to it entitled I Have No Stories To Tell You; a work by Opera Philadelphia composer-in-residence David Hertzberg, The Wake World (yet a third world premiere); and a solo recital by world-class soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, this year’s Festival O inaugural artist.

Detailed information about each production, their venues and ticket availability can be had at https://www.operaphila.org/festival

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About Author

Charles Geyer is a director, producer, composer, playwright, actor, singer, and freelance writer based in New York City. He directed the Evelyn La Quaif Norma for Verismo Opera Association of New Jersey, and the New York premiere of Ray Bradbury’s opera adaptation of Fahrenheit 451. His cabaret musical on the life of silent screen siren Louise Brooks played to acclaim in L.A. He has appeared on Broadway, off-Broadway and regionally. He is an alum of the Commercial Theatre Institute and was on the board of the American National Theatre. He is a graduate of Yale University and attended Harvard's Institute for Advanced Theatre Training. He can be contacted here.

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