Lively opera debut from an ambitious new Hawke’s Bay company

The Marriage of Figaro (Le nozze di Figaro) by Mozart, sung in Italian with English surtitles
Presented by Festival Opera

Creative Director: Anna Pierard
Conductor and stage director: Jose Aparicio; production designer: Richard Wood; set designer: John Briggs; lighting: Dan Browne; costume designer: William Waitoa
Cast: Count: Changhan Lim, Countess: Jennifer Davison; Figaro: Garry Griffiths, Susanna: Carleen Ebbs; Cherubino: Sabine Garrone; Caroline Hickman, Joel Amosa, Thomas Barker, Laura Jeffares, Howard McGuire

Napier Municipal Theatre

Tuesday 18 February, 7pm (and 20 and 22 February)

Through the 1990s I went to most of the operas staged by Hawkes Bay Opera in the Hastings (later renamed Hawkes Bay) Opera House. The company rather declined from the early 2000s, but there has been some recovery since the return to Napier of Anna Pierard and her husband Jose Aparicio, who have been involved, Jose as artistic director and both Anna and Madeleine as principals with recent productions presented by the company.

But this is a new and distinct enterprise, employing four principals from overseas, the rest New Zealanders, most from Hawkes Bay. Unusually, Aparicio took on the responsibilities of both musical director and stage director. And there I may as well begin, saying that in both spheres he imposed a professionalism, energy and polish that is unusual in a new company that is perhaps, not 100 percent professional in its employment of singers and instrumentalists. He refrained from doing the sort of violence to the staging that is common in Europe and also makes its appearance in this country. His production, along with the occasionally mishap-plagued surtitles, managed to present the story with clarity and wit.

Because the production was designed to adorn musically Napier’s Art Deco festival, the era was changed from the 18th century to the 1920s. Sets (designer Richard Wood) and costumes (William Waitoa) were carefully designed and achieved that, without excess, without drawing attention to any kind of pretentious symbolism, simply rather beautifully. The era translation was highly successful.

The brilliant little overture was accompanied by a projected mimed sketch of the essentials of the opera’s predecessor, Rossini’s The Barber of Seville – the first of Beaumarchais’s great comic trilogy that satirized class structure in pre-French Revolutionary Europe. ‘Meaningful’ but irritating activities often accompany the overture in opera these days, but this was appropriate and funny.

And the orchestra, which impressed with its speed and precision in the overture, repeatedly caught the ear through the performance, for its finesse and an accuracy that was well beyond what might be expected from an essentially amateur ensemble, that receives no help from Creative New Zealand.

So the first act opens in the room the Count has offered to Figaro and Susanna for their planned wedding; there’s a central stair that divides right and left and provides a useful device for various later activities such as the encounter between Susanna and Marcellina, which both Carleen Ebbs and Caroline Hickman carried off in convincingly catty fashion.

The stair is swiftly replaced in Act II by a wall in the Countess’s chamber, with the windows through which Cherubino escapes;  later the windows are replaced in the Count’s reception hall by a huge full-length portrait of himself in splendid toreador’s garb, which he sits in front of to adjudicate the promise of marriage suite between Figaro and Marcellina. Every design touch seems right, effective and comic.

The comic highlights were quite wonderfully performed, the dance of the chairs between Cherubino, the Count, Susanna, Basilio and finally Figaro; the growing confusion in the face of the Count’s attempts to flush out whoever it is in the Countess’s wardrobe; and the scene’s end with Cherubino’s jump from window, gardener Antonio’s entrance, the Count’s bafflement, the final thwarting of the Count’s attempts to stymie Figaro’s wedding as Figaro is discovered as the illegitimate child of Marcellina and Bartolo. Each scene is splendidly paced and the confusions made as clear as I’ve ever seen them for the audience, even in the extraordinary Act IV.

Chief honours went to Carleen Ebbs’s Susanna, with a voice and histrionic talent that seemed designed for the role, though by the fourth act tiredness taxed her vocal agility. Hers was the kind of performance that automatically brought a smile to the face.

About equal was the portrayal of the quietly polished, cynical but finally outwitted Count from Korean baritone Changhan Lim; he refrained from undue arrogance: the words and the music do that well enough. In his scene in Act III, his ‘Hai gia vinta la causa’, was a splendid, display of anger and frustration.

The role of Cherubino tends to be rather central, as one of the most famous comic cross-dressing tours-de-force; Sabine Garrone didn’t seem a natural in the role, apart from convincing female to male walk and gesture and her generally youthful appearance. Her voice suffered intonation lapses as well as not being quite the right fit for the role; I wondered whether there should have been an announcement about a vocal ailment.

The Countess has two famous arias that are considered of central importance. In her first appearance in Act II, United States soprano Jennifer Davis sang ‘Porgi amor’ beautifully, if with such retiring quietude that the audience was not driven to applaud. Her characterization however had a dignity and restraint that may not have been diva-driven, but was simply very true to the nature of the role.

Gary Griffiths is a big man, perhaps not a classic Figaro in appearance, with the hard-to-achieve mix of obsequiousness and cleverness; nevertheless, with a fine baritone voice he was as good a bumbling object of Susanna’s irritation in the first scene as later, the sharp-witted schemer devising ways to thwart the Count.

The role of Marcellina is usually portrayed as large and matronly and of a certain age. Caroline Hickman was none of the above (she is eventually revealed at Figaro’s mother and thus has to be round 50) and her part did seem miscast, but only for a moment, since, slight, young and pretty, with a bright voice, she carried it off with such conviction that I had to conclude that Mozart and Da Ponte must have made a mistake.

Though Joel Amoso had a lapse in Act I, he proved well cast as Bartolo, his demeanour and voice fitting the role very well.  Tenor Thomas Barker as the slippery music teacher Basilio enjoyed his comic opportunities, relishing the chance to create embarrassment and confusion, and he carried them off well. The young Barbarina, a classic soubrette role, is a small part which often in the hands of a singer well down the list misses some of its comic potential. Laura Jeffares looked the part and sang brightly, no slow-witted servant-class, but well equipped to participate in the dissembling and role playing in the last, hilarious act. Antonio, the tipsy gardener, was a well-cast Howard McGuire, futilely throwing spanners in the works.

This is a most promising venture and it has made a startlingly fine start, with a brilliant production of one of the greatest operas in the repertoire. The company’s intention is to seek opportunities to mount opera in festivals around New Zealand. There are increasing numbers of festivals and most of them would benefit hugely from the injection of wonderful music.

I might as well conclude by remarking that twenty years ago, when I was reviewing for The Evening Post, I was able to review performances such as this in the paper. This was certainly a musical event that deserved attention from both The Dominion Post (if it was remotely interested in acting as the Capital’s only newspaper) and The New Zealand Herald.