Review: Vanderbilt University’s “The Marriage of Figaro”

I have to start off this review with complete disclosure: I was originally going to watch a Youtube screening of this opera performance. I fully believe that people should review filmed screenings of operas, because that is slowly becoming the new normal. More people will likely be exposed to opera through film than through actually seeing an opera live. The Met certainly has adapted for that, so I feel it is my duty as someone who writes about opera to write about filmed opera productions. Especially if, like this production of The Marriage of Figaro put on by Vanderbilt University, they are placed in such a way that people who would probably not be looking for opera may come upon it. Even if that production isn’t stellar, I still feel compelled to expose them to the world. So here is the first of these pieces.

Knowing that, imagine my surprise upon discovering that not only is there a pirated screening of this opera up on Youtube (which actually turned out to be incomplete), but there is an actual legitimate video of this opera on the university’s website. Go ahead. Try both links. And please notice, the university uploaded the Youtube version themselves. How cool is that? It’s as if they actually wanted people to access opera for free!

Sherlock GIF saying

I will occasionally use GIFs to describe opera. Strap in.

But let us begin. Despite my searching, I could find no solid cast list for this production. Quite a fascinating thing for the Internet age, but there you have it. I would truly love to be able to see what happened to these singers after college, because they all have such unique ways of singing. In this production, Susanna (intended wife of the utterly charming Figaro) is pretty near perfectly cast. Her energy never seems to run out, and she keeps the rough edges of her English in check just enough to be a sexy, but still earthbound, servant character. The Countess, conversely, shines early on but fades with time. It’s not a matter of skill — the Countess simply looks tired from being on stage so much. It’s quite sad.

The Countess, Count, and Susanna from "The Marriage of Figaro"

But to be fair, the Count and Countess lose steam in the second half of the show, and it appears to be out of pure exhaustion. The Duke’s aria is truly disappointing, because unlike Doctor Bartolo he does not give into his own stereotype. The singer appears too afraid to dive into his part, when to have a successful opera you must be prepared to go the full Pagliacci. He does later on, when the character has more to do with a scene. But Cherubino is somewhat less afraid to immerse her/himself in the part (it’s a drag role, I don’t know what the f^%k protocol is) on a consistent level. But again, I wish I was able to find out what these singers were up to now. I would have loved to have heard them all now, when they were more season and less afraid to look ridiculous.

One complaint I’ve read in the comments for the Youtube version of this performance concerns the fact that the performance is in English. It’s not Le Nozze de Figaro, it’s The Marriage of Figaro. All I have to say to these people is: Pick your f%^king battles. This university saw fit to make an opera, and it appears to be cast mostly of college students who know how to sing opera. Their vowels are very pure, and vibratos are great all around. I feel it is much more worrisome if the singers cast could not treat the music with as much respect because it was in English, or if their operatic phrasing skills did not extend to English. This cast sinks into the latter at times, but in general they have a very good handle on the music’s direction and on the plot itself. It is believable as an English adaptation of the original score and book, as opposed to a translation.

Marcellina, Basilio, Doctor Bartolo, and the Count from "The Marriage of Figaro"

A word on the video production: It is very very grainy. It helps drastically to heighten the light settings on your laptop if you are using a Mac like me. But even then, I had to watch the opera with a blanket covering my head in the same manner as I would if I were eating ortolan. The incomplete Youtube edition also goes up to only 480p, but the sound quality is substantially better. The quality of the filming also chopped  Considering the production was filmed in 2010, this is highly disappointing But there you are.

This production bears many marks of a low-budget opera production, for good and ill. The set is minimal, and the pieces are originally moved out by members of the case themselves. The costumes are limited in scope, and the actors are forced to work within a very intimate set. But the overture mostly consists of the characters moving the set pieces over to their desired position, interacting with those they meet entirely in character. It’s a splendid way to establish who is who, and that feeling of intimacy can be harder to duplicate with a more costly show. As for the costumes, there are occasional moments of humor only possible through simplicity. Basilio the gossipy music teacher carries around a small dog that counters colorblocked garb, and it was funny because it looked more alive than the character himself.

Overall, I would recommend this production purely as a “starter opera” — a production to show someone new to opera what it’s all about, and to show what some of the symbols and stock characters are. Seasoned opera fans may be frustrated by the English phrasing, but it’s all well and good for newbies. I strongly believe that not every opera production has to be perfect, so long as it’s not trying to mimic past performances of it too much. This production feels so self-contained, so cozy, that I would send it to others as a starter any day.


About the Author: Brit McGinnis writes regularly for nerdy blogs, awesome magazines, and even the odd eBook. In her free time, she edits and writes even more things. You can see some samples of her work on her website. She also loves running, watching horror movies, and playing video games.

You can find Brit on FacebookGoogle+, Twitter, and LinkedIn. You can also find her on Pinterest, if you like social media articles and Bioshock fan art.

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