'Figaro' an artistic treat

Posted: Thursday, April 22, 2010

Juneau Lyric Opera has produced many of the most important pieces of opera during its 35-year history. I distinctly remember the 1990s production of Carmen at Juneau-Douglas High School, in particular Kathleen Wayne's terrific performance in that title role. As I've followed this troupe over the years, enjoying their work, I was excited to take in "The Marriage of Figaro" as soon as I heard it was to be the spring production. I enjoyed last fall's "Mikado," but was not entirely smitten by its overall effect given the unevenness of that production.

While this JLO iteration of Mozart's best-known piece is titled in English, it is sung entirely in Italian, and beautifully so. Almost all aspects of this production were at least very good, and often indisputably excellent. When the first opening notes wafted up from the Thunder Mountain High School orchestra pit, quickly followed by staging to accompany the overture, I felt I was in for an artistic treat. My fondest expectations were amply fulfilled as the evening unfolded.

Opera is a serious art form, and demands one's attention. I am more familiar with the score of "Figaro" than any other opera, and thus eagerly awaited my favorite arias. I was thrilled when Tiffani Hanson (Susanna) and David Miller (Figaro) took the stage and began the simple yet elegant opening number, where a groom measures space for the marital bed while his fiancée sings of her wedding veil. These two protagonists expertly set this story in musical motion.

The plot unfolded briskly through the first of the four acts, highlighted with Figaro's spirited rendition of "Non piu andrai, farfallone amoroso," one of the best operatic melodies of all time. The second act charmed with Kathleen Wayne's radiant portrayal of Countess Almaviva, aptly followed by Christine Renée Keene's spot-on rendition of Cherubino's "Voi che sapete," a highly recognizable and hauntingly beautiful tune. Christopher Holmes marched into the Countess's chambers as the highly suspicious Count Almaviva with palpable excitement and first-rate singing.

The story of "Figaro" is somewhat complex and requires careful attention if you're not already familiar with it. A careful reading of the synopsis in the playbill is highly advised, so you can focus on the music and physical aspects of the production while you're at the opera. All of the principals in the cast have strong stage presences, clear command of their notes and Italian diction, and act their roles believably.

While the lead roles are crucial in opera, the work of the ensemble is every bit as important to overall success. The featured artists in JLO's "Figaro" fit the bill perfectly, singly crisply and with appropriate dynamics, and physically fitting the stage in a manner that complemented the ultimate effect. Paul Shipper's directorial choices created a compelling world on-stage, transporting the audience to a baroque European castle filled with mischievous aristocrats, clever servants, and earnest townsfolk, all of them communicating magically through music.

To create such a work in the context of community theater is profoundly impressive; this opera deserves to be seen.

Having sung the praises of "Figaro," I must note that just as it was an ambitious choice for JLO, it presents challenges to the audience as well. Its sheer length may make it difficult for some to enjoy in its entirety. Go prepared and well-rested, and plan to enjoy a refreshing beverage during each of the two 15-minutes intervals while stretching. If you have the chance to listen to the music before going, it will stand you in good stead, as you'll have a better ear for the arias, and will also absorb what's going on more readily.

All in all, JLO's "Figaro" is a stellar show that Juneau audiences ought to see at one of the two remaining performances this weekend. If for some reason you can not do this, I'd even recommend going to Sitka next weekend to take in the show at the new Sitka Performing Arts Center, where I am convinced Juneau will dazzle our Southeast neighbors with this operatic gem.

"Figaro" will be performed Friday and Saturday at 7:30 p.m. at Thunder Mountain High School. For more information, visit www.juneauopera.org.

• Ben Brown is an actor and attorney who lives in Juneau."

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