Mozart loses in FGO’s charmless, slipshod “Figaro”

By Lawrence A. Johnson


 For a choice example of why Florida Grand Opera’s fortunes have proven so variable over the past decade, one could hardly do better than point to the current production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

 The artistic issues that have plagued the company continue, and were glaringly apparent Saturday night at the opening performance at the Ziff Ballet Opera House.  Ill-advised casting, unpolished singing, lack of adequate rehearsal time, crude stage direction, and Stewart Robertson’s slack, oblivious conducting—all combined for a charmless, sloppy performance that more than once threatened to fall apart completely.

 Mozart’s glorious score and Lorenzo da Ponte’s witty, insightful libretto remain as fresh today as when The Marriage of Figaro was premiered in 1786, with three hours generously spread among a large ensemble cast of some of most engaging and remarkable music ever put to paper.

 The current production revives the staging last seen in 2003, with Benoit Dugardyn’s elegant quasi-Minimalist sets, efficient segues between acts, and a bed center stage as the focal point for the romantic escapades. Best is the clever, non-arboreal design for Act IV, which dispenses with the usual garden greenery for irregularly slanted columns that reflect the characters’ tangled amorous motivations.

 Kelly Kaduce has done some impressive work in Miami, not least her last appearance two seasons ago in the title role of David Carlson’s Anna Karenina. But in her first attempt at the Countess, Kaduce was less successful. While a fine actress, Kaduce is less at home in Mozart comedy, and her Countess lack regal bearing and elegance. Vocally, Kaduce’s soprano appears to have lost some luster, with a hard-toned, wobbly Porgi amor. Dove sono went better, though Kaduce’s ample grace notes distorted the simple purity of the vocal line. I’ll take Mozart’s version.

 As Susanna, the object of the Count’s affections,  Lauren Skuce delivered a lovely Deh vieni, non tardar, but her shallow, edgy soprano and unidiomatic Mozart singing was too often harsh and hectoring, as in a painful Che soave zeffiretto with Kaduce.  While she was certainly energetic, Skuce appeared to be  trying too hard, with her over-caffeinated Susanna more irritating than charming.

 Amanda Crider as Cherubino demonstrated the dangers of putting journeyman singers in prominent roles. The FGO Young Artist had the proper androgynous look for the hormonal teen page and moved well, but Crider’s colorless mezzo and lack of vocal gleam and Mozart style made little of her two arias.

 The two male leads fared somewhat better.  Andrew Oakden’s baritone is far too high for the role of Figaro, but, despite a couple jarring notes, he at least sang with more idiomatic style and assurance. As the Count, Phillip Addis was authoritative if without the dark incisive cut for this role, though the Canadian baritone gave an admirable account of his Act 3 aria. 

 The comic comprimario roles were equally uneven. While Katrina Thurman made a worthy peasant-like Barbarina, James Maddalena was inaudible in the fast patter of Bartolo’s vengeance aria. Dorothy Byrne was miles over the top, even for Marcellina, and Douglas Perry, a vocally thin, yet surprisingly restrained Basilio. The production took the usual cuts, which was a blessing considering the lack of vocal refinement and the deadly tempos in Act 4.

  Stewart Robertson conducts Mozart with the grave, patient deliberation of a man trying to figure out why his checkbook isn’t balancing. The evening had some engaged moments, but for long stretches, Robertson’s slow-to-moderate tempos took the fizz and vitality out of Mozart’s delightful music.  Worse was the alarming lack of coordination with the stage action, with the Act 4 ensemble almost coming to a full stop, and singers and orchestra often in different time zones. Even the usually reliable FGO Chorus had a bad night with rough and erratic ensemble.

 Stephen Lawless’s stage direction, assisted by Nicola Bowie, was in the house Mozart tradition of crass knockabout obviousness. There was little sense of the characters’ class, with the Count slapping Figaro and the Countess frolicking in bed with Cherubino (thereby rendering the central issue of the Count’s adultery completely meaningless). Pat Collins’ lighting was more evocative than practical, artfully painting the day’s changing light, but much of the time leaving the singers’ faces in shadow, disastrous in an opera where much of the comedy comes from characters’ reactions.

 Le nozze di Figaro runs through March 28 at the Ziff Ballet Opera House and April 2 and 4 at the Broward Center , 1-800-741-1010;

[Phillip Addis as the Count, Kelly Kaduce as the Countess: Photo by Deborah Gray MItchell.]

Posted in Performances

13 Responses to “Mozart loses in FGO’s charmless, slipshod “Figaro””

  1. Posted Mar 22, 2009 at 4:34 pm by Oscar

    SOMEONE NEEDS A VACATION!! Wow Lawrence, you’re slipping. This article is completely inaccurate. The opera was FABULOUS!!

    I’ve followed FGO since they were housed at the Miami-Dade County Auditorium. I admit, not every performance I’ve watched over the last 15+ years has been a success, however, Le nozze di Figaro was an absolute triumph!!

    After the show I left the theater smiling and excitedly thinking–FGO IS BACK!!

  2. Posted Mar 22, 2009 at 8:28 pm by Giuseppe Di Muro

    “Best is the clever, non-arboreal design for Act IV . . .” What say? Sorely missing was “the usual garden greenery,” as Act IV required a bit too much willing suspension of disbelief, more than this viewer could manage. The opera lost serious momentum in this finale.

  3. Posted Mar 23, 2009 at 8:54 pm by Oscar Gutierrez

    I attended the performance that Mr. Johnson reviewed and it was indeed horrible. The review above is right on the money, and elegantly so. It is so tragic that the FGO tried to get Mr. Johnson fired (in a very public manner!) rather than working hard to improve the artistic quality of their productions. The FGO seldom seems to get it right. And so many wealthy patrons seem to be willing to keep throwing millions of dollars at artistic mediocrity. So sad, really.

  4. Posted Mar 24, 2009 at 9:25 am by Lisa Talon

    Yes, FGO needs to make some changes. But would it be better if they DIDN’T throw their millions of dollars at mediocrity? Then people like you wouldn’t have the chance to bitch about how bad the opera is.

  5. Posted Mar 26, 2009 at 7:45 am by Terry

    Larry, even though I read your review, we attended the March 25th performance of Le nozze di Figaro. Thankfully we had the 2nd cast, which you didn’t reviewed, but they didn’t pull it off either. I guess I’m just used to more! The last time I heard this work live was in Chicago with Cecilia Bartoli as Susanna, the most notable, and a cast of greats with the Chicago Symphony… semi-staged, but still superior to this, unfortunately! Those were the days! Keep up the good work Larry!

  6. Posted Mar 26, 2009 at 12:52 pm by Benjamin

    Should FGO “throw their millions at mediocrity” or we have no opera at all?

    The question should be: Are we getting sufficient quality for the money being spent or could the same dollars produce substantially better opera? The answer is no and yes.

  7. Posted Mar 28, 2009 at 9:52 pm by A.Coulter

    I also attended the March 25th performance, and had the exact opposite reaction as the poster above. Elizabeth Caballero was utterly dumpy and unattractive as the (usually) elegant Contessa, and stumbled stylistically throughout the role, with acting more suited to a tacky soap opera rather than the stage. It thankfully seems that FGO has dumped her next season for more qualified (and easier on the eyes and ears!)artists. I very much enjoyed the Susanna of the beautiful Ms. Farcas, no wonder the Count was more interested in her than his wife!

  8. Posted Mar 29, 2009 at 11:03 am by R. Blakely

    After reading A. Coulter’s response, I had to wonder if some political machinations were at work here, or maybe just plain jealousy, maybe sour grapes on behalf of Ms. Kaduce’s supporters. I personally thought Ms. Caballero has never looked more beautiful or more radiant. I welcomed the fact that she actually gave the Countess a personality, that she had such a varied palate of expression and emotion that made us see all the facets of the Countess’ personality. She gave us both a vocally and dramatically multi-dimensional character. Maybe Coulter disagreed with her particular interpretation, but Coulter’s venomous posting clearly demonstrated that their intent was just to be mean and nasty. Maybe the reason Ms. Caballero is not singing with the FGO next season is because she wasn’t available, maybe, for example, because she’s singing at the Met! Coulter, I think the joke may be on you because you have no idea how much the FGO loves Ms. Caballero. Let’s try to keep our criticisms constructive. Resorting to comments about who is prettier is so very…well…high school! And immature. Writing smack about Ms. Caballero is not going to make any of the singers you support sing any better! To the readers of this blog, don’t believe everything you read…don’t believe Coulter, don’t even believe me…just go see Ms. Caballero and see for yourself what a beautiful Countess she really is!

  9. Posted Mar 29, 2009 at 1:27 pm by Jung

    I did see both casts. Twice. What strikes one when Ms. Caballero arrives is, “ah, here is a singer’s, not a student’s, voice.” The two arias of the Contessa are very difficult, exposed singing. They require expert technique. There are few singers who can approach these notes with the clean attack, that Ms. Caballero does. She is also able to deliver the control over the high notes, delivering pianos, which Ms. Kaduce was not, apparently, able to do. The standing ovations that Ms. Caballero received cannot go un-noticed.

  10. Posted Mar 31, 2009 at 10:54 am by Stephen Lawless

    Traditionally we are supposed to suffer in silence, but bad reviewing [as opposed to a bad review] has occasionally forced me to abandon my customary silence and take up the cudgel. Lawrence Johnson’s review of my production of Mozart’s THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO for Florida Grand Opera claims that “there was little sense of the character’s class, with the Count slapping Figaro and the Countess frolicking in bed with Cherubino.” I would be intrigued to know on what he bases this view as he seems to be ill-informed. The production tries [more than most in my experience] to clearly define the lines of demarcation between the classes.

    Figaro, for example, dons servants’ livery in the first scene, as indeed did Mozart -against his will- when he was a salaried musician to Archbishop Colloredo in Salzburg. The game that Figaro has to play is to get one over on his master while still appearing subservient. Most of the time he plays it brilliantly but occasionally oversteps the mark for which he is punished. Eighteenth century novels [Sterne,Fielding etc.] are full of instances of servants being hit — indeed if they hadn’t been what need would there be for revolution? From Goldoni’s Arlecchino to Mozart’s Leporello, servants are treated outrageously [and indeed Mozart, when he was finally dismissed from Colloredo’s service for insubordination, was booted down the stairs!] I think a case could be made for claiming that the master/servant relationship is the basis for the vast majority of progressive 18th.century literature and it’s that that we have tried to portray on stage in the first 3 acts. The genuinely subversive point of the piece is that when social pretensions are put aside [as in Act 4] underneath the servants’ livery or the Counts’ finery, we are all made the same and subject to the same urges, again, something the production tries to clarify.

    If Mr. Johnson was genuinely interested in class he might have cared to mention the “revolution in action,” as Napoleon called the Beaumarchais play upon which Mozart and his librettist Da Ponte based their opera. In Act 3, the winds of change sweep round the great hall of Benoit Dugardyn’s sets and armed peasants enter during the wedding march to ensure its success. The revolution in action indeed.

    If I can add one final note about the cast: I last saw a production of FIGARO in Vienna about eighteen months ago featuring several stellar names and it didn’t come close to the cast assembled in Miami. For a company with FGO’s resources to be able to field two casts of this calibre is, in my opinion, remarkable and a cause for celebration rather than the disparagement that seems to have been heaped on the company and its outgoing musical director for too long.

    Stephen Lawless, Stage Director

  11. Posted Apr 07, 2009 at 4:41 pm by Karma Police

    So the new orchestra full of students and a handful of professionals can’t keep it together, eh? Perhaps if instead of changing the entire orchestra, there was a change in the orchestra’s leader, you might have actually made some improvement. But yes, let FGO keep throwing $$$ at the things that don’t work. Bunch of hacks.

  12. Posted Apr 07, 2009 at 10:02 pm by Loydd

    Don’t mess with Mozart. It’s not for the technically challanged. A good sound is not enough! Please hire singers with skill and depth.

  13. Posted Apr 15, 2009 at 11:28 pm by Samuel Segal

    Now just a minute there “Karma Police.” The review did not say that the orchestra can’t keep it together. It commented negatively on Mr. Robertson, including a reference to “lack of coordination” between singers and orchestra. That was stated in the context of a listing of conducting issues by the reviewer. The orchestra itself has been quite good. It certainly seems in vogue to take shots at FGO, but let’s be honest. While the productions themselves apparently have led to differing opinions in review, nowhere in this season’s reviews has the orchestra been criticized as a negative factor. Regardless of the written debates, audience reaction to the operas I have attended has been uniformly enthusiastic.

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Sun Mar 22, 2009
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