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OPERA REVIEW : Unhappy Mozartean Marriage in Costa Mesa : With Klaus Donath conducting and the stage decked out in old decors, ‘Nozze di Figaro’ sounded better than it looked.

TIMES MUSIC CRITIC

So how do you like your “Figaro”?

If you like Mozart’s human comedy elegant and refined, subtle and witty, stay away from the Opera Pacific version, which opened Wednesday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center.

If you like the opera to reflect the inspiring tone of Beaumarchais’ play--that is, if you care about the inherent class distinctions, the bitter social conflicts and the force of cynical satire--"Le Nozze di Figaro” in Costa Mesa is not for you.

But . . . .

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If you can regard this Baroque masterpiece as a ribald laff riot, a gag festival or an adventure in slapstick shtickery, this “Figaro” is for you.

Much, but not everything about the production was vulgar and clumsy. Luckily, it sounded better than it looked.

Klaus Donath, the conductor, did his considerable best to enforce grace, momentum and poise. The orchestra played for him with welcome transparency and a reasonable facsimile of finesse. The cast was dominated by seasoned (in some cases, very seasoned) professionals who know their way around Mozart’s sublime cantilena.

Unfortunately, even the best efforts were undermined by what transpired on the stage. Someday, perhaps, Opera Pacific will show Orange County what a first-rate director can do with an operatic challenge, and what modern major-league decors look like.

David Gately, who was responsible for the staging here, obviously doesn’t trust Mozart’s music or Da Ponte’s libretto. He apparently doesn’t even trust the audience to follow those ever-intrusive supertitles (which, once again, encouraged the viewers to read the most poignant moment in the opera, Almaviva’s plea for forgiveness, as a joke).

At every turn of the convoluted narrative, Gately underlined the obvious. Then he added a paragraph of exclamation points.

Most of the frantically busy cast, including a decidedly not-old Marcellina, spent much of the first act rolling around on a central mattress. Later, not incidentally, the spinster housekeeper wore her own glamorous, incongruous, lily-white bridal gown to what was planned as someone else’s wedding. So much for temporal credibility.

Credibility, alas, seemed less important on this occasion than ornamental raunch. The oh-so-lusty Count pawed every woman within pawing distance. So did a hormonally overcharged Cherubino. Sweet little Barbarina, a peasant, plunked herself in the Count’s aristocratic lap in full view of dangerous witnesses.

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In the irrelevant shtick department, Don Bartolo was encouraged to impersonate a wheezing buffoon. A hyperactive Basilio constantly took notes on the proceedings with what must have been a ball-point quill. And so it went. Turgidly.

Matters were hardly helped by Peter J. Hall’s scenery and costumes, designed for the Dallas Opera more than a quarter century ago. Hall turned Aguafrescas, the castle near Seville, into a senselessly shabby, oppressively seedy hovel. The Almavivas had apparently fallen on hard times.

An exterior set for the third act contradicted logic and reduced the necessary desk and unnecessary divan to awkward anachronisms. The costumes, like the direction, made little effort to distinguish servant from master--long before the masquerades of the finale--and the poor Countess was allowed to look downright dowdy.

At least the singers were competent. Some were more than that.

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At this stage of her long and distinguished career, Helen Donath hardly resembles a conventional soubrette, and it is significant that she will graduate at the Met next season from the lightweight platitudes of Susanna to the heavier duties of the Countess. Her voice retains amazing sweetness, flexibility and freshness, however, and her tone still shimmers throughout an astonishingly even range.

Her charm quotient might be enhanced if she indulged in less mugging, but her vitality and savoir-faire remain undoubted assets.

John Cheek complemented her as a sturdy, dark-voiced, somewhat humorless Figaro. Louis Otey--the youthful, loudly libidinous Count--was not particularly well-paired with Benita Valente’s rather prim, mature, small-scale Countess.

The soprano did earn admiration, however, for her command of the long, arching line, for the smoothness and purity that she brought to her two great arias, and for the delicacy with which she managed the ascending phrases usually given by default to Susanna in the second-act terzetto.

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Faith Esham, elsewhere a celebrated Susanna, seems to have outgrown Cherubino’s trousers (figuratively, not literally). She was hardly in the best of voice on Wednesday, and the skirt-chasing antics imposed upon her suggested terms of hysteria rather than endearment.

The supporting cast was modest but eager. Thomas Hammons (a.k.a. Henry Kissinger of “Nixon in China”) reduced Bartolo to a clownish dolt. Carter Scott (bereft of her aria) played Marcellina as an obnoxious vamp. Darren Keith Woods (bereft of his aria) played Basilio as a silly fop, and, like his predecessor at the world premiere, doubled as Don Curzio. Kerry O’Brien introduced a promisingly pert Barbarina. Eugene Long as the gardener, Antonio, faded into the canvas shrubbery.

The long opera was performed in four long acts separated, needlessly, with three long intermissions. The non-capacity audience shrank as the long evening progressed.


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