It's been 231 years since Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's comedic opera "Le Nozze di Figaro" (The Marriage of Figaro) debuted. Turns out, it's still hilarious.
Thanks to the Savannah VOICE Festival's strategically wonderful staging of one of the most popular operas in the world, Savannahians were treated to a show that highlighted all the reasons why this opera has endured.
There are thousands of ways to correctly or incorrectly stage a theatrical production. Over the decades, directors and dramatists have envisioned a host of live theater styles, honing in on certain aspects that draw an audience in, and discarding the unnecessary ones.
Time and again during this production, I found myself utterly lost in the story. I have two degrees in theater arts and studied playwriting under masters of the art form. (No hubris here, just facts.) Sometimes it's difficult for me to suspend my disbelief and simply enjoy a production. Savannah VOICE Festival's opera accomplished something pretty amazing for me - not even my beautiful dates were a distraction.
What I think the Savannah VOICE Festival really accomplished with this production was to find balance on the tightrope walk of pomp and circumstance, pageantry and costuming. Too much and it's overwhelming and could take away from the action itself; too little and important attributes of the original score and script can be lost.
Under the direction of Vincent Connor, Maria Zouves, festival executive director, and Sherrill Milnes, festival artistic director, this production found the optimal amount of pageantry and staging, all accented by soaring vocal performances.
Against the back wall of the Charles H. Morris Center, "The Marriage of Figaro" took place on a simple black stage. The stage was adorned by a large backdrop screen, flanked on each side by two thinner screens, set downstage far enough to create exits on both sides.
There was a split in the back screen to allow for an upstage exit. This was one of the most creative uses of the space I've seen, and one of the most creative stagings I've seen in a long time. It was simple enough to allow space for the action, and complex enough to draw patrons into the world being created.
The set was projected on the three screens. Throughout the production, the projection would shift to take us into a new setting. Sometimes it was a subtle shift, and at other times more dramatic, but it always played well to the scene on stage.
During the garden scene, I watched the moon float across the backdrop. With the perfect amount of lighting, the scene was more than enough to give you the feeling of actually being in a garden. No hyperbole. It was amazing to experience.
Above the projection, the libretto was subtitled on the screen, so patrons who don't speak Italian (like me) could follow along with the lyrics. Though a simple touch, this feature opened the door for the audience to join this house full of lovers and fighters, and the hilarious story they tell.
Further augmenting the scene were beautiful period costumes that seemed to fit each performer as if they had worn them for years. That is no easy feat. Costuming can be a difficult task, and if the actor is not comfortable, it shows.
These might seem like trivial features to note, but what most paying customers are not privy to is the hours of thought and action that go into putting on a live theatrical production. If the details are well thought out, the production will be much more enjoyable.
Then, there is the music. Perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of this production was the performers themselves. Featuring students of the 2017 Sherrill Milnes Studio Artist VOICE program, most of the night's performers, including the two leads, were making their VOICE programs debut.
I am not sure it would be fair to say these were amateurs. Perhaps they were before working with Milnes, a world-renowned baritone, but they are no longer. With the exception of a few moments when projection dropped off and the vocals were lost a little, the singers shined brilliantly all night.
Most notable was the performance of Jean Carlos Rodriguez as Figaro, his counter, Mary Catherine Wright as Susanna, and Charlotte Jefferies as Cherubino. All three were making their debut appearances and all three excelled.
Connor's directing pulled the comedy out of this opera. It's not easy to ensure proper timing and choreography to achieve maximum belly laughs, but Connor and company nailed it.
Here's the kicker: this production was staged in two weeks. Typical rehearsal time for a major production can take months sometimes. Impressed? I was.
During the introduction, Zouves also made note that a number of the production crew were part of the VOICExperience program. She also said the puppet used in the production was also used in a major production in Vienna in one of the theaters where Mozart debuted works. Cool stuff.
When you marry the experience of Milnes and Zouves with exceptional young talent, not only is Savannah better off, but the world of opera and musical theater is also indebted.
Part of the Savannah VOICE Festival's mission is to perpetuate the art form as a whole. By giving space for young artists to learn and work, they fulfill this mission. We are a lucky city to have Zouves and Milnes working in our midst and to be able to enjoy the fruits of their labors.