Eternity opera’s triumph with The Marriage of Figaro – with the second cast

Eternity Opera Company
The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart
Conducted by Simon Romanos and directed by Alex Galvin
‘Second cast’

Cast in order of appearance
Figaro – William McElwee
Susanna – Pasquale Orchard
Marcellina – Laura Loach
Dr Bartolo – Richard Dean
Cherubino – Olivia Sheat
Count – William King
Don Basilio – Peter King
Countess – Hannah Catrin Jones
Antonio – Minto Fung
Barbarina – Alexandra Woodhouse

Set designer =- Darryl Ng
Costume designer – Sally Gray
Choreographer – India Loveday
Lighting designer – Haami Hawkins

Hannah Playhouse

Sunday 6 August, 6 pm

The production was performed seven times over a week, with only one dark evening, on Monday the 7th. There were two casts, but that did not mean each had a quiet time every other day, for each acted as the chorus for the other on alternate evenings. It was a busy week for everyone.

Last year’s Don Giovanni had been scheduled in the same way which was presumably considered successful. Because I was to review Orchestra Wellington’s Daphnis et Chloé concert on the opera’s first night (Saturday 5 August) I opted to review the second cast, on the Sunday.

Delight with the second cast
I was so delighted by that performance that I was inspired to write a quick little review on the Sunday evening, enthusing about it so that it might influence attendance over the rest of the week.

But when Peter Mechen’s review of the Saturday performance appeared promptly, I decided there was no need for what would have been little more than a plug for the production. (I knew it would be a few days before I could finish a fuller review, as I had the Daphnis et Chloé review to write, a dense book to finish before my book discussion group on Tuesday and preparations for a U3A opera presentation two days later).

I came away from the performance by the ‘second cast’ happy that this small company had again succeeded so well. If this was the ‘second’, usually not quite as strong as the first, the latter was presumably impressive indeed, even though I had it from Director Alex Galvin that the two were well balanced. Now, having also heard the ‘first cast’ on Thursday evening, I have to agree that there were rather more very good performances in the latter cast, with several strong singers who either had the character of the opera in their blood or were well directed by a conductor and director, more likely, both. In contrast with last year’s production, there had been more rehearsal for Figaro, both for singers and instrumentalists.

There was musical sparkle and energy, in performances of such confidence that the story came to life as I’ve rarely experienced it even in professional productions. If there were certain shortcomings in last year’s Don Giovanni, they have largely vanished in the face of a production where the orchestra sounded more secure and the standard of singing even better.

It’s in English, and although singing, especially by higher voices, is often hard to follow without surtitles, there was greater verbal clarity than usual.

The set was fairly simple, hinting at Art Deco or perhaps Spanish Mission; three adjacent walls set at obtuse angles and capable of being easily transformed, with doors and windows, and subtle changes to curtains. Some costumes worked better than others, and I guessed were guided by what might have existed or been available rather than by a costume designer’s over-all concept based in a particular period.

The best singers were quite splendid, vocally and histrionically, and the rest (varying between excellent and merely very good) had clearly been so well guided that all the wit and hilarious confusion, becomes clear. One’s impression of singers tends to change during the course of a performance, and here the changes were all in a positive direction.

Lovers Susanna and Figaro
The Susanna of Pasquale Orchard stood out from the first scene with her intelligence and alertness to the Count’s lecherous aspirations, while her lover, Figaro, William McElwee, initially appeared somewhat bland, but gained confidence over the course of the evening. In the first scene the sharp-witted Susanna castigates Figaro for not realising the Count’s lascivious intention in granting the about-to-be-married couple a bedroom adjacent to his own. Cut however was a chunk from that scene: Figaro’s amusing ‘ding, ding’ and ‘dong, dong’ episode revealing his naivete in not perceiving an arrangement that greatly suited the Count’s ambitions.

If in the first two acts Figaro’s voice lacked interesting variety and grit, it opened out and he became virtually the main focus in the later scenes (in spite of the occasional difficulty of catching words), more vivid and easy to follow than usual, particularly in the turbulent Act IV, in the garden. However, I felt that the way in which he wore his costume did him no favours: he needs to appear essentially a city man, stylishly self-confident rather than slightly casual about his appearance.

The scene between Susanna and wittily over-dressed Marcellina (Laura Loach) in Act I is occasionally dropped and perhaps it’s dramatically a bit irrelevant, but it was funny and feisty; anyway, we get the measure of the rank-conscious Marcellina. I think there were other cuts, for example in the Act III scene involving the Count’s adjudicating the case between Figaro and Marcellina.

The trouser role, Cherubino, usually taken by a fairly young female singer, was Olivia Sheat, whose height and presence afforded her performance the look and mannerisms of a not-very-shy teenage boy, though it made her concealment behind the famous chair problematic! She sang strongly, the ardent ‘Non so piu’ and later in the Countess’s room, ‘Voi che sapete’, conveying an easeful touch of adolescent turmoil.

Bartolo, like almost all the roles, has much comic potential, but though Richard Dean’s voice was in character, and his patterish Vengence aria was fine, he struggled to convey the wit inherent in the pompous doctor’s thwarted scheming (Roger Wilson, in the first cast was, inevitably, more snake-like and hilarious).

The Count v. the rest
I meant not to make comparisons between the two casts, however… In the case of the Count, the scope to carry off self-inflicted humiliations and mortification is plentiful, but neither Orene Tiai (in the first cast) nor William King in the second captured them perfectly, for different reasons, mainly not quite succeeding in investing the role with a persuasive, aristocratic hauteur. Nevertheless, the Act I scene with the chair was magnificently calculated and timed. And in Act III his ‘Hai gia vinta la causa’, filled with the Count’s fury on overhearing Susanna’s victorious whisper to Figaro as she goes out, both called for and had strong conviction.

Peter King sang the role of other malicious male, Basilio, spy and trouble-maker, who deliciously compounds the confusion of the ‘chair scene’; I couldn’t put my finger on why he was fractionally less than riveting, though his interventions were always telling.

The Countess, sung by Hannah Catrin Jones, was a creation of touching poignancy, right from her beautiful, if slightly heavily vibrated, ‘Porgi amor’ at the beginning of Act II; her words were not very distinct but her demeanour most expressive, and even more so in the lamenting ‘Dove sono’ in Act III.

The role of the gardener, Antonio, has a couple of moments of considerable force, and Minto Fung managed to inject a serious crisis into Figaro’s and Cherubino’s battle of wits with the Count. The scene was excellent. So were the appearances, in Acts III and IV, of his sexually precocious daughter, Barbarina, nicely carried by Alexandra Woodhouse; the pin escapade was both funny and of momentary dramatic import.

The dozen-strong orchestra, under Simon Romanos, was impressively accomplished, generally just one player for each instrument; led by Douglas Beilman, former second violin in the New Zealand String Quartet, individual instruments had interesting clarity, and singers were never disadvantaged either by unrestrained dynamics or ensemble mishaps. It handled the space nicely, tucked into the right side of the stage. Instead of a fortepiano or harpsichord, Christopher Hill played a guitar, I think without amplification; an interesting departure, but by nature it had a rather less refined voice than a harpsichord.

Lessons to be learned
Though one allows oneself to hope, every time a small, enthusiastic opera group arises, that here might be the start of a real Wellington-based company that will attract Arts Council, City Council, corporate and other financial support, the tendency is to wait till a company really proves itself.

It is not irrelevant that in the 1980s highly motivated singers in Wellington, as well as other centres, established small opera companies during a period of relative opera deprivation, and that in Wellington it led to Wellington City Opera which typically presented three productions a year till 1999 when the unfortunate amalgamation with Auckland’s comparable company formed New Zealand Opera. Opera flourishes best when its roots are strongly local; but money is the main problem.

But by that time the leaders and out-of-their-own-pocket funders have exhausted themselves and their resources, and an enterprise that deserves immediate backing is left to bleed to death.

New companies are often driven by dreams of bringing enlightenment to imagined audiences by staging obscure or modernist pieces that fail to attract audience support. So a company like Eternity, which displays common sense, excellent artistic judgement as well as dynamic musical and production abilities is treated no better than groups that fail though their own misdirected ambitions.

Eternity Opera and its principals Alex Galvin and Simon Romanos scored a considerable success, a step or so above last year’s achievement, for both its casts, even though in competition with the Film Festival, and facing an unusual quantity of live classical music and theatre of various kinds during the mid-winter period. The audiences were responsive throughout and after both performances there was a palpable spirit of delight in the house with what had been seen and heard.

I rather hope that it was named in the hope that Eternity would become a realistic goal; for the company’s achievement marks it now as worthy of serious support, particularly since the enterprise of Galvin and Romanos has now been proved in two striking successes with two of the greatest operatic masterpieces.

It is also important to give it credit for engaging large numbers of talented, well-schooled musicians – singers and instrumentalists – in Wellington, and from around the country, who have offered musical entertainment at a high level, helping validate Wellington’s generally fatuous claim to be ‘the cultural capital’.


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