Duke is in need of some good press these days, so here goes. When considering the gaggle of opera companies – both past and present – who have tried their luck with Triangle audiences, the Duke Symphony under the baton of Harry Davidson ranks pretty high. Davidson began the annual tradition of semi-staged opera several years ago with Don Giovanni, using the student orchestra and imported professional singers. It was a courageous venture, one that at least would have a guaranteed audience of family and friends. But it succeeded beyond anyone's expectations – except perhaps Davidson's. The group's latest venture is Le nozze di Figaro, and if you can make it to Baldwin tomorrow, they're doing a second performance Saturday April 8 at 7:30 p.m.
First of all, the orchestra. Never mind Wagner, Figaro is a hefty endurance affair, three hours long, with lots of skittery stuff for the strings right off the block. It's a great score but has few opportunities for orchestra soloists to strut their stuff; a lot of hard work gets little individual glory. But Davidson's 75-member crew is a real team who, as far as we're concerned, should get the kind of money and glory that goes to the athletes. Most impressive were the strings. Albeit your average pick-up orchestra gets less rehearsal time, but Capitol Opera could have used a few of them, although, of course, they don't belong to the union.
Figaro also has a large cast, all members of which, from the Almavivas to Antonio the gardener have to be experts in acting and ensemble singing, along with their solos. As a general rule, the entire cast sported fine voices, some of them exceptional. Among the winners was Jody Sheinbaum as Susanna. She brought charm and vivacity to the role, and her "Deh, vieni non tardar" ranked up there with the stars. Brian Johnson as Count Almaviva has an excellent but rather light baritone voice and managed the character's two occupations – lechery and jealous bullying – admirably. Joshua Sekoski as Figaro has a wonderful voice, but needs to loosen up as a comic. His "Aprite un po' quegli occhi," lacked the combination of self-righteous anger and broad comedy this ironic aria requires. Perhaps it was the semi-staging that inhibited him. One cast member who certainly lacked any inhibitions at all was Teresa Buchholz as Cherubino. She has a wonderful voice with both power and clear diction; and she bounced around the semi-stage, getting in everyone's way and messing up their plans like an untrained puppy. Natalie Havemeyer as Dr. Bartolo's aging frustrated housekeeper Marcellina is an excellent actress and ensemble singer.
Veteran singers Clifford Billions and Alfred Anderson, who stage directed the production, hammed up their respective roles of Don Basilio (and later the notary Don Curzio) and Doctor Bartolo, putting their comic abilities to the service of slightly aging voices. Stephanie Northcutt was an uneven Countess. She fared best in ensembles and comic business, but her "Porgi amor" and "Dove sono" seemed strained. Susan Williams made the best of a minor role as Barbarina, yet seemed to have the stuff for a good Susanna, once she gets her dissertation for her D.M.A. finished. And John Watson as Antonio has a fine baritone although, still an undergraduate, couldn't quite put on enough years for the elderly gardener.
The staging worked as well as can be expected for such a production; there are, after all, no ballets, camels or car chases. Harpsichordist David Heid, behind the screened (which also served as Countess Almaviva's closet) provided expert and flexible accompaniment to the recitatives. Vocal coaches Mary Schiller and Clifford Billion saw to it that the diction was good throughout.
We can't wait for next year's production. To judge from the last few years, it should be great entertainment. In the mean time, try to attend tomorrow evening.