Pacific Opera Project’s (POP's) Marriage of Figaro is playing just two weekends, one in Pasadena at the Porticoes Art Space and one in Santa Monica at the Miles Playhouse. With alternating casts, it is a jewel, due to outrageous creative directing of Josh Shaw, Artistic Director, vibrant musical directing of Stephen Karr, Musical Director, and unbridled singing and comedic talents of two complete casts.
Having seen and greatly delighted in POP’s productions of Cosi Fan Tutte last season and Barber of Seville recently, I can say there is in this company a steady stream of American performers who are often overlooked at bigger venues in favorof bringing in better-known international names. While it is fun to experience the foreign perspectives and grander staging in large, established opera settings, there is something to be said for having a cast of "locals," especially when it comes to comedy. There are nuances and gags which can be sneaked in to enhance the fun. There is an easy chemistry and cameraderie at POP which can be counted on, especially since there are limitations of time and space to be dealt with.
POP’s mission is to keep prices low, to encourage everyday people to appreciate the opera experience and open it to new audience members. We are reminded by Shaw before the show begins that the low price of tickets does not really cover the costs of producing opera. Donations are requested and appreciated. (One hopes Pacific Opera Project will soon receive some greatly deserved grants to help enhance their mission.) The venue in northern Pasadena is not ideal (especially for Westsiders) and a bit musty, and the creative sets are sometimes not as sturdy as they could be. But the essence, the vibrance and fun of comic opera, is firmly rooted here. And besides, every affordable seat is an orchestra seat!
In Marriage of Figaro, (we saw the second-night cast), the heavenly and masculine baritone voice of lead character Ryan Thorn as Figaro, and that of the Count Luvi Avendano are very pleasing and strong. Their comic chops help carry the show. Avendano especially has many moments of torment and evil to portray, and as the frustrated meanie, he is always entertaining. E. Scott Levin as Bartolo is also hilarious.
What I found to be most sparkling was the array of sopranos, one more lovely than the next, who brought their voices into their bodies and souls and exuded humor as well. (Sometimes I find sopranos to be too lyrical for my taste, and here the sounds were vibrant and dramatic.)
First is our heroine Susanna, played by Sara Duchovnay. She is fun to watch as she prances and teases and pouts and angers, all without missing a note. Then we are treated to the hilarious and charismatic Stephanie Sadownik as Marcellina, who among her bag of tricks, has sex while singing. Up pops Julia Aks in the trouser role of Cherubino. She is perfectly cast as the gawky young boy who loves women. She captures the character's every move. When we are introduced to ultra- lovely heartbroken Countess played by Bridgette Gan, her vibrato voice billows through her body and excites the audience even more.
Certainly I hope to see more of them in the future. Kudos to Stephen Karr not only for his directing a wonderful ten piece chamber orchestra but also for his humorous supertitles. While Marriage of Figaro is fun and full of twists and turns, it is not as outrageous and over-the-top as were POP’s productions of Cosi Fan Tutti and Barber of Seville. There was more slang and more liberties taken with the translations there. I found the translations this time to be more straightforward with the actual Italian--and although the piece is set in a different time and place, the setup fit in more handily.
Shaw's interpretation takes place in 1980s Florida and concerns a drug lord and group of mobsters. In the traditional Figaro, set in 17th Century Spain, the opening scene finds Figaro measuring sizes for his marriage bed. Here he is still reciting the same numbers, but they are in relations to money being counted. There are several little vignettes inserted among the big scenes to further help the audience understand the story, convoluted as it is. The very opening sets up the play with a mob scene of interrogation so that we immediately know who these characters are.
The music wins out. The Mozart arias, duets, quartets and chorus numbers are all so beautiful, many of them could be show-stoppers in themselves. It is great to know we have so many wonderful operatic talents in the United States, and that we have a savvy director who can spot them and creatively use their talents.
Shaw and Karr are clever in every way, putting their greatest energies into the operatic arts and doing amazing work with limited budgets.Pacific Opera Project is surely a company to watch and enjoy.
Photos by Mik Milman
Georja Umano is an actress and animal advocate.
Pacific Opera Project
The Marriage of Figaro
1130 Lincoln Bl., Santa Monica
Fri. April 19 - 8pm
Sat. APril 20 - 8pm
Sun. APril 21 - 4 pm
Students and seniors $20