Review: Star-studded Canadian cast gives Grade A reading of Figaro

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

Since Opera Lyra was shuttered in 2015, opera in the nation’s capital has been meted out parsimoniously: a student, semi-professional or amateur production here, a visiting ensemble during a summer festival there. Small homegrown organizations like Pellegrini Opera and Operottawa present modest seasons of varying quality.

There was the Canada 150 revival of Harry Somers’ Louis Riel in 2017 — a work that’s now being reimagined in a Canadian Opera Company-NAC co-production, with a new section by Métis composer Ian Cusson to replace the culturally appropriated Kuyas aria.

Wednesday night’s Nozze di Figaro at NACO offered Ottawa its first taste of Grade A opera singing in many years, and judging from the jam-packed Southam Hall, it was something audiences were waiting for. The semi-staged version featured a star-studded cast of top Canadian vocal talent, including Gordon Bintner as Figaro, Erin Wall as the Countess, Joshua Hopkins as Count Almaviva, Andriana Chuchman as Susanna, and Katarzyna Sadej as Cherubino.

Frequent NAC collaborator Donna Feore was supposed to direct the project, but a scheduling conflict led to her replacement by Allison Grant. Staging was minimal: two wingback chairs covered with sheets at centre stage, a couple of mobile benches and a few props. The cast was dressed in their own black-and-white clothes, more or less appropriate to their character (a charming tea-length dress for Susanna, a more striking gown for the Countess).

Grant’s direction emphasized the cast’s youthful vigour and energy, and I liked her choice of showing the Count as dangerous and abusive, rather than turn him into a comically hapless tool. But without the luxury of a larger space to play in, or the framing of a physical set, it often felt busy and chaotic. The complicated, mimed business of various doors and cabinets opening and closing in Act 2 got very confusing, even for someone familiar with the work.

The orchestra was on the floor in front of the stage, not in the pit (the redesigned Southam Hall allows for the removal of several rows of seats). NACO sounded like a million bucks, but the arrangement led to some balance problems, especially during the ensembles.

Alexander Shelley favours bracing, mercurial tempi for his Mozart. But I felt that in his constant drive for brilliance and breathless virtuosity, he didn’t always give the singers the time and space they needed to deliver their best. The conducting could have benefited from less push and more patience, waiting for a singer to breathe, for example, or not rushing a tumbling recitative past the point of clear diction.

Andriana Chuchman was a delightful Susanna: vibrant, lively and quick. Her sensual, marvellously even soprano is clear and sweet, but extraordinarily well projected, with a rich chocolatey hue in her lower register (the low A in Deh vieni wasn’t harsh or chesty, as for many singers). She could be heard so much more clearly than the other singers that at one point I wondered if she was helped by a microphone.

As Figaro, Gordon Bintner showed off his wonderful physical acting skills and comic timing. He has a firm, golden-hued, ringing bass-baritone, but his Italian diction was haphazard at best, with extreme vowel modifications that turned Cherubin-o into Cherubin-a.

Erin Wall’s Countess was deeply felt, dignified, stoic in her suffering. The dramatic arc of her Dove sono was masterfully built, passing from bitter melancholy, to hope, to exuberant resolve. Joshua Hopkins gave the Count a satisfyingly unpleasant, sneering edge.

Katarzyna Sadej was fun to watch as Cherubino, all raging teenage hormones and gangly awkwardness. Sadej has an attractive, deep mezzo, but her tendency to clip, swallow or undershoot her high notes was especially noticeable in Non so più.

With his cane, neatly waxed mustache and Gallic panache, Jacques Arsenault looked more like Monsieur Triquet than Don Basilio. Unfortunately, his light, fine tenor was completely swallowed up in the ensembles. The talented young soprano Anna-Sophie Neher — a former Carleton music student — made an extremely favourable impression as Barbarina.

The small chorus was impeccably prepared by Lawrence Ewashko, although the singers could not be heard very well when made to stand at the back of the stage.

Mozart’s Nozze di Figaro has one more performance Friday night.

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Natasha Gauthier has been covering classical music in Canada and the US for more than 20 years. She was the classical critic at the Ottawa Citizen, and was one of the founding critics of Montreal's HOUR Magazine. She has served on the classical music and dance juries for the Governor General's Performing Arts Awards. You can also read her at her blog, Natasha has a BA in Journalism from Concordia University.