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Figaro at Wolf Trap

Maureen McKay (left) and Ailyn Pérez as Susanna and the Countess, The Marriage of Figaro, costumes by Gabriel Berry, Wolf Trap Opera, 2006, photograph by Stan Barouh
Maureen McKay (left) and Ailyn Pérez as Susanna and the Countess, The Marriage of Figaro, costumes by Gabriel Berry, Wolf Trap Opera, 2006, photograph by Stan Barouh
Friday night, I took Mini-Critic along for the final production from Wolf Trap Opera this summer, Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro. He made a lot of friends and was extremely attentive to the first half of the opera. Because he got a little fidgety toward the end of the first half, we moved to the far aisle so we wouldn't bother anyone. By "Dove sono i bei momenti," he was sound asleep. I will intersperse his comments with my own.

When I ended up at the Filene Center by mistake last weekend, I thought that the capacity crowd for folk music was there for classical music. What a difference a week makes! Figaro is about as perfect as an opera buffa can get, and it can usually make even a pretty good production, like this one, into something enjoyable. Although the weather cooperated with a dry and pleasantly breezy evening, vacationing Washingtonians did not turn up in great numbers, filling somewhere between a third and a half of the theater and lawn. I wrote last year, when Wolf Trap Opera slashed a full staging of Rossini's La Cenerentola with several performances down to a single, semi-staged concert version, that opera in the Filene Center is probably a lost cause, and my opinion has not changed. It is, I'm afraid, bordering on unfair to throw younger singers into this kind of venue. The issue, I would guess, is that there is not enough room in the Barns for a full orchestra. However, several performances in the Barns, more or less full, without the need for amplification, must be preferable to an undersold night or two in the echo cavern.

The opening scene on stage as we took our seats -- the staging is by Robin Guarino, with sets by Donald Eastman and costumes by Gabriel Berry -- was enchanting. The bedframe suspended on a rope, over a modest room of furniture in dustwraps, delighted Mini-Critic's eye. (It was the first thing he mentioned to his mother the next morning, although he was disappointed that Figaro did not use a tape measure to measure the space for the bed. This was the only part of my brief -- and censored -- explanation of the plot that stuck in his mind.) A rope-and-pulley system to lift the new bed up to an upper floor apartment in the Count's residence, where servants usually live, was a nice and realistic touch. The hay on the floor, I thought, must have been the packing material for the couple's belongings. It seemed traditional but pleasing enough. The hay remained, however, with the bare wood of the platform exposed throughout the opera. It was a pretty shabby château, and for whatever reason, the Count and Countess had to park their old carriages in the romantic pine grove of the final act. Robert Wierzel's slanting auroral and crepuscular lighting added some much-needed warmth.

Other Reviews:

Stephen Brookes, 'Figaro': A Triumph of Mozart Over Matter (Washington Post, August 21)

Stephen Brookes, A Summer Night's Figaro (Most of the Shebang, August 21) — in which the critic admits that the picture may not have been as rosy as it sounds in his review in the Post

T. L. Ponick, Wolf Trap Opera's 'Figaro' a sparkler (Washington Times, August 21)
The singing was just fine, but no member of the cast distinguished himself or herself. The voices I had heard in the Barns sounded much better there. Perhaps it was a bad night for the sound technicians, but from where we sat, there was occasional distortion and unexplained metallic scraping sounds coming from the speakers. Maureen McKay was an attractive but underpowered Susanna, while Ailyn Pérez's Countess was certainly present, but her tendency toward sharpness was pronounced. Faith Sherman did a nice job with Cherubino's gorgeous arias, now sung so often by every mezzo-soprano from the cradle that they are difficult to perform with any sense of spontaneity. Although Sherman was not very convincing as a man, she seemed to be just fine with Guarino's decision to have her leap into the orchestra pit in Act II. (Another highlight for Mini-Critic was when I took him up to the orchestra pit to see the instruments and the pad that she leapt on to from the stage.) There was fine comic acting from Ronnita Nicole Miller (Marcellina), Matt Boehler (a scarecrow-like Bartolo), and Chad Freeburg (a very fay Basilio).

There were some embarrassments from the orchestra, led not very decisively by Ari Pelto. Tempos were up and down, and there were more than a few discrepancies between stage and pit, mostly due to singers rushing. While the wind playing was generally fine, the violins lacked unity and I have never heard worse horn playing in a professional situation, as far as the sheer number of missed notes. In a Wolf Trap season that has had several successes (Orpheus, Roméo et Juliette, Le Comte Ory), this was a relative low point. There is always so much to enjoy in Mozart's music, but it must be said that this particular rendition was more ordinary than not.

We get letters here at Ionarts, oh boy, do we get letters... If we write anything negative, we get angry comments that are transparently the work of friends or acquaintances of the performers. The people who submit such vitriolic comments inevitably do so anonymously.


Anonymous said...

If the audience filled "between a third and a half of the theater and lawn" at Wolf Trap, and that happened for two straight nights, then you're talking about a lot of people seeing an opera. The place holds around 7,000 people, so half full is 3,500. If they did 1/3 to 1/2 full for two nights, then a lot of people (like somewhere between 5,000 and 7,000) saw Figaro. You may be disappointed the place wasn't full, but that many people going to the opera over the course of two nights seems pretty impressive.

Anonymous said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Charles T. Downey said...

Anonymous, you're right. That is still a lot of people. I should try to see the glass as a third to a half full.

Anonymous said...

Hi Charles -- wait a sec -- "the critic admits that the picture may not have been as rosy..." The problem, as you well know, is that the Post constrains us to about 250 words -- not nearly enough room to touch on every aspect of a concert (and about half the length of your own review).

Hence the blog entry, where I could give a more complete picture.
Best, SB

Charles T. Downey said...

Stephen, it goes without saying that critics hear performances as individuals, and it would be silly for me to think that you have to agree with me. Yes, there are word limits at the "Post." However, if I compressed my review down to 250 words, to be compared with yours, the two pictures of this production would still be rather different. That was the only point that I was making with my comment about your blog addendum. Your "Post" review described the production as a triumph, and then after the fact you expressed reservations in your blog post.

Anonymous said...

Ailyn Pérez's singing stole the show. She was not sharp on Saturday night, I can assure you!

Charles T. Downey said...

Alex, I'm glad to hear that.

Anonymous said...

Sopranos almost always get the most attention, and while I agree that Maureen McKay (Susanna) and Ailyn Perez (Countess) were both wonderful, this time the most beautiful voice in the production was that of the mezzo Faith Sherman(Cherubino). She is a real find!

Anonymous said...

First of all, Mr. "Salieri", I'd challenge you to not be courageous enough to post this.

I believe that you are not in a position to comment on artistic performances such as Wolf Trap.

It's clear to me that your background is not 1/10 of any of the performers or that of the management there -- you, sir belong to the class of "professional pretenders". It's easy to poke holes at others when one is not on the line professinally. Strangely, sir, that your mini-critic has none of the traits of an aristocratic reviewer, and all the traits of someone who belongs to the local godfather -- more parmesan, perhaps?. Some of the more intelligent members of the audience are not amused -- please know sir, that dark gifts have a dark price. And we hope that you recant your unfair observations, and confess the true reason for your slanted reviews.

Anonymous said...

He who lives by the sword, unjustly, will die by the sword -- even the verbal sword.

May your spirit of contention, and arrogance, be cast out, and may your third eye be shut out and burned with coals.

May your curses be returned to you, the sender, and to the Mini-Critic, one-thousand fold.

May you never have peace, may you always know that you are merely a pretender, and be revealed so in the press.

May you be plagued with insecurity that you and the mini=critic will someday be revealed to everyone as what you are -- tasteless, worthless, and cowardly -- may this be your judgement unless you apologize publicly.

may you lose your mental stability someday, and may it all be revealed in your writing as well, and in your judgement, and may it appear as public and clear to everyone as your malicious blog.

Then may you remember this day, as clear as if it was yesterday, unless your apologize. And may St. Michael assist in bringing your persecuting mouth to a close.

A perceptive friend of the arts

Charles T. Downey said...

Thank you for your reasoned response, clearly without bias, and for giving me a good laugh.

jfl said...

Hey... dammit: I don't even get such comments. Not even when I write about Verdi... Life is just not fair.

Charles T. Downey said...

Anonymous, you should be embarrassed by the puerile way that you vilify me and a young child (who, by the way, loved the production). If you are not, I am ashamed for you and for the person you think you are supporting by making this sort of hateful and absurd comment.

Some day you may realize that it is better for performers to listen to the objective reaction of an unbiased and honest critic than having friends and family members always blowing smoke up their asses. This would require more intelligence than your comments here indicate is at your disposal.

Anonymous said...

I think I have to agree with your critical reviewers -- something about your post is reminiscent of a critic who is temporarily demented or working with the mob...-- strangely, though, your website and Stephen's has the same design look and feel. Suppose you are both old cronies after all. Why not give the management of WT a break, and stop targeting them out of envy? It's so clear to everyone who has half a mind....I also challenge you to publish this.

This comment was posted by the same person as the previous two anonymous comments. The author is in California (Pacific time zone) and has Internet access through Roadrunner ( Here is the information from the log. Keep posting, anonymous, and I will find out who you are, since you are too much of a coward to sign your name, you spineless twit.

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Anonymous said...

Wow! Vitriolic crazies...

at least there's a modicum of entertainment to be had from all of this