Joy in the afternoon


Opera Queensland

Playhouse, Queensland Performing Arts Centre

Saturday July 25, 2021

Xenia Puskarz Thomas

To borrow the commonest of catch-cries: how good’s The Marriage of Figaro? Even better, seeing it in the flesh after some months of no opera on local stages. This Patrick Nolan-directed production represents the first major indication of life since the pandemic began in earnest. So it’s welcome both for breaking a long drought and for itself – the most beguiling and character-rich of Mozart’s operatic masterpieces. Added to which, Brisbane was clearly in the mood for it. This was a matinee but packed to the gills with enthusiasts coming from across all age groups, if the interval foyer was any guide.

Because it was an afternoon exhibition, we saw the second cast, which fact involved changes to only the main four principals. As Figaro, Timothy Newton replaced Jeremy Kleeman – which meant that he had a lot to live up to, Kleeman having built a sterling reputation since he appeared in a Musica Viva farrago some years ago. Susanna was sung by Katie Stenzel, in place of Sofia Troncoso – not much difference to me as I don’t think I’ve seen either soprano on stage [that’s wrong: I came across Troncoso in a Camerata concert last November]. The redoubtable Jose Carbo’s place as the Count was taken over by Shaun Brown; I know the former all too well, the latter not at all. And Eva Kong’s Countess gave way to that of Leanne Kenneally, both of these sopranos familiar to me from Opera Australia and Melbourne Symphony Orchestra appearances.

The rest of the cast remained constant, led by Xenia Puskarz Thomas‘ outstanding Cherubino: the production’s chief vocal delight. Hayley Sugars (Marcellina) was an unknown quantity, probably because much of her work has been in Queensland. Jud Arthur (Bartolo) is a regular with the national opera company and has also appeared for Victorian Opera. Tenor Bradley Daley (Basilio) is one of those singers that you feel you know well but, when put to it, can’t remember in what situation. As Antonio, Samuel Piper played a remarkably sober gardener, and Irena Lysiuk – like so many sopranos in her position – was deprived of Barbarina’s main chance to shine: L’ho perduta, introducing Act 4.

The company’s resident conductor, Dane Lam, headed the Queensland Symphony Orchestra – well, members of it – which has taken me aback mightily on previous occasions. No matter what’s happening on stage, the pit sound for Opera Queensland is top quality and Mozart’s brilliant overture emerged at concert hall standard. The only improvement would have been if the curtain had stayed down and we’d been spared the dumb show of Figaro moving in to his new quarters with chorus members carrying boxes and bed materiel across the stage in yet another vain attempt to provide visual stimulus from go to whoa. Why bother, when you’ve got white-hot effervescence in the pit?

On we went to the singing, Newton and Stenzel making fair work of the opening duet, although this Figaro could have made more of his sudden realization of the Count’s skullduggery during the Se a caso segment. The following recitative (all of them accompanied, so I understand, throughout the opera by Dane) was abridged and similar cuts were made at several points later on. Newton’s cavatina Se vuol ballare sounded confident enough, apart from the two si top Fs which were hurled out abruptly. I enjoyed this singer’s later Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi – addressed, as usual, from front of stage directly to the audience – but then that aria doesn’t rise above an E flat, And the Non piu andrai was dispatched efficiently yet lacked bounce and personality, especially in Figaro’s mock-heroic final 12 bars.

Stenzel’s character began well enough with a light touch throughout Act 1 and her interchanges with Sugars (their Via resti servita duet passed very quickly; was it cut?) pleased for their mobility as did her contribution to the trio involving Brown and Daley. The disguising of Cherubino throughout Venite inginocchiatevi went by without leaving a single memory (did it really happen?); Susanna’s Canzonetta sull’aria with the Countess proved too hard-edged for me, and it was taken at a pretty brisk allegretto which cut off any chances for indulgent dolcezza; but the Deh vieni was a highlight in a far too well-lit Act IV, that pizzicato support leaving this light soprano plenty of space to make her linear points without having to strive against orchestral force or vivacity.

Kenneally sang a forthright Countess, her character not given to self-pity yet not as aristocratic in bearing as you might have expected in the one person who should rise above the fray. Both the big arias – Porgi amor and Dove sono – came over with power and well-paced breathing control, but the singer’s vibrato strikes me as slow and steady, so it was something of a relief to reach the Ah! se almen moderate Allegro in the Act 3 aria. Still, the singer’s reliability and punch in the big even-act finales was very welcome in ensembles that occasionally veered towards muddiness.

As Almaviva, Brown made the most of some slim pickings: lots of ensemble work and rapid-fire recitative, but only one set solo. This last fared well enough, if rhythmically heavy-handed, but the inbuilt sense of outrage was present and – something like Newton’s opening solo – the only off-putting moment came with that top F sharp 8 bars from the end of Vedro mentr’io sospiro: a sudden blast of hefty effort cutting across the line’s carefully arranged phrases. Besides this one blip, Brown contributed with distinction to the Act 2 trio, and he kept his head through the audience noise that disrupted that moment of breathtaking humanity: Contessa, perdona.

The principal who put no foot wrong was Puskarz Thomas, who appeared to enter into her role with more conviction and energy than most Cherubinos I’ve seen. It helps if you are equipped with a smart-as-paint crispness of timbre and are working in a role that suits your abilities. For instance, her Non so piu made musical and dramatic sense (for once) with every note pitched accurately and her rapid phrases shaped with precision. Some time later, Voi che sapete impressed for its eloquent yearning and the naive assurance of Cherubino, who assumes that the world shares his outlook.

You could pick over this singer’s work but I took pleasure in small passages that often disappoint, like the Sospiro e gemo nervous semiquavers in the later pages of the Act 2 aria, and the clarity of her repeated B flats at ogni donna cangiar di colore and what follows in Non so piu. Another time, another place and we could have had two encores which, judging by the final curtain calls, would have been generally welcome. The only oddity came when the character was directed to mime disguising an erection; I’ve seen it done in other productions and, although it raises laughs, you’d have to work hard to find any such embarrassment consistent with the score.

Bartolo’s La vendetta aria impressed only fitfully, mainly as it reached its hectoring final strophes from Ogni Sevilla; but then Arthur had to labour against an improbable costuming and characterization which reminded me of a tennis coach of the Harry Hopman era – all whites and athletic bouncing around. Sugars sang a fine Marcellina, her mezzo clearly projected and working well in the Via resti servita duet and the Act 3 extended sextet Riconosci in questo amplesso even if some other cast members handled this recognition scene with a cack-handed lack of overt surprise. And I believe her Act 4 Il capro e la capretta solo disappeared; further, unless my concentration really lapsed criminally, so did Daley’s In quegl’anni in cui val poco so that his Basilio too seemed reduced to ensemble work. Ditto Piper’s Antonio (well, that’s right – he only gets some recitatives and the two big finales) and Lysiuk’s under-utilised Barbarina. Another gratifying aspect of the performance was the fact that the chorus – all 15 of them – stayed in tune and in time with Lam’s direction. The same could not be said of the Cosa sento trio in Act 1 where both male participants – Count and Basilio – at one stage wound up some way ahead of pit proceedings.

There isn’t much to say about the look of the piece. Modern costumes were all the go, the Countess’s outfits sometimes stylish and then grotesque. Marg Horwell‘s sets used grey as a fundamental, with wayward chandeliers resting on the floor another motif. A large sculpted head sat at front-of-stage for the duration, the associated body appearing for Act 4; probably a comment on the fate of unreconstructed aristocrats, and some decorative blood around the neck suggested that the premonitions of Beaumarchais might have been another of the setting’s reference points. As a production ‘look’, the result was deliberately shabby; nobody was going to much trouble over anything, least of all the upcoming nuptials, apart from a plethora of artificial flowers and a fountain of plastic cups.

Still, you don’t go to the opera to look but to listen. That’s right, isn’t it? In the end, this production held enough creditable arias and ensemble work to engage your attention and (sometimes) admiration. But the best points were that magnificent Act 2 finale, climaxing in a vital reading of the concluding septet, especially from the Piu allegro at Son confusa; and also the heartwarmingly buoyant Questo giorno di tormenti conclusion to the whole work. At these moments, you just shut your eyes – nothing is happening: the cast is just singing to/at you – and delight in unalloyed beauty. If a company can bring off these major points with success, most of a performance’s defects fall by the wayside.