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REVIEW: Figaro at the Hill House

Angels and Demons Entertainment’s recent production of The Marriage of Figaro at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul was a magical experience. Over the last two weekends, the music of Mozart’s masterpiece has echoed through the rooms and over the terraces of the historic mansion, breathing new life into Beaumarchais’s story and delighting the intimate crowds in attendance. The worst thing about this performance by far is how hard it was to get tickets – even at $150 apiece, with only 35 seats available per performance, the complete run sold out before opening.

One of the great things about this performance is that stage director Robert Neu’s use of the found space to create truly immersive theatrical experience. While the tight space of the servant’s quarters in which Act I unfolds may seem at first to lack the capacity for operatic scale, this thoughtful and elegant production makes it feels at every turn like a perfectly natural vehicle for both the music and the action. Ushers shifted audience members  from room to room between acts, leading them on a descent from the servant’s quarters on the third floor to the Countess’s bedroom on the second, to the grand staircase in the entrance hall, and finally out onto the terrace. Before and after, guests we treated to a summer wedding reception, intermingling with staff and some cast members in character. Samantha Fromm Haddow’s sophisticated costuming placed the action in the early 20th century, a fitting era for the economic division and critique of aristocratic privilege the opera explores.

The physical space of the James J. Hill House offered an obvious and apt metaphor for the class stratification at play in the libretto (sung in English for this production with Ruth and Thomas Martin’s translation), but the limited square footage also put stricter parameters on the size of the audience and the size of the sound. Rows of seats had to be spread as unobtrusively through each room in order to leave room for the performers. Rather than promoting leg cramps and self-consciousness, such close quarters paired with skilled and engaging performances allowed the audience to feel actually transported into the lives and intertwining intrigues of the characters. Musical director Mary Jo Gothmann provided the sole accompaniment on piano throughout, allowing the singers to explore subtler and more conversational moments in their interpretations (as conversational as one can be approaching High C, that is).

Our Figaro was Gabriel Preisser, who fit the very definition of dapper with his neatly trimmed, era-appropriate mustache and easy charm. While on a larger stage his antics would call for something fairly broad, the personal setting allowed his comedic timing to be looser and more relaxed, even leaving space for some improvised asides. His Figaro was more the affable class clown than an exaggerated type, and Preisser’s luscious baritone was capable of expressing both tenderness and power in addition to his lighter and more vibrant moments. By his side was the luminous Tess Altiveros as Susanna, deceptively dainty in stature and possessed of wit, poise, and sensitivity throughout. Altiveros was equally at home with the more mad-cap slapstick physical comedy and the sweeter romance, sporting a full and graceful soprano voice and offering an absolutely transcendent rendition of “Beloved, don’t delay” (“Deh vieni, non tardar” in the original Italian) in Act IV. As Susanna takes a moment to tease her new husband Figaro with an aria addressing her pretend suitor, Altiveros and Preisser’s performances were utterly capitvating as he silently fell into despair and she sang of her deep longing and love actually meant for him.

Karin Wolverton was miraculous as the Countess, the heart and moral center of the opera. Wolverton’s vivid, stirring voice was perfectly suited to the role, and her delicate beauty and gently expressive performance came alive in the personal setting of the mansion. One audience member commented that she didn’t even felt comfortable applauding after Wolverton’s first aria, “Porgi, amor,” not because her performance hadn’t been wonderful but because she had not wanted to interrupt the private moment. Andrew Wilkowske, with an open and agile baritone, was deft and swaggering as the wayward Count, a role for which it is very difficult to create sympathy. Wilkowske’s Count was less menacing and villainous – predominantly spoiled, more immature than malicious, genuinely taken aback that not everything would follow his whim, making the Countess’s devotion to him and final forgiveness feel slightly more deserved.

Another standout performance among this astonishing cast was Adriana Zabala as the hormone-crazed pubescent Cherubino. Zabala brought a delightful and always-welcome stage presence to the proceedings, managing to bring different colors and layers to each moment she was onstage. Marcellina (Victoria Vargas), Bartolo (James Ramlet), and Basilio (Paul R. Coate) made for a powerhouse trio (with Coate doubling as a completely off-the-wall Don Curzio in Act III), bringing a pinch of cartoonish villainy to the evening and utterly endearing themselves to the audience. Quinn Shadko and Jim Ahrens appeared as Barbarina and Antonio, blending in with the “wedding guests” before the performance to complete the illusion.

While the limited seating translated to a relatively higher price, it would be well worth seeing this production again in the same or similar circumstances. The evening was smart, stylish, amusing, and innovative , and I for one look forward to what else this creative team has in store.

Lydia Lunning