MSU Opera uncorks fizzy 'Figaro'

By Lawrence Cosentino
Sarah Bauer (left) and Jacqueline King in MSU Opera's production of "The Marriage of Figaro." (Courtesy of MSU College of Music)


Are we at our sexiest when we’re lying? The pretty (and petty) aristocrats in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Michigan State University Opera Theatre’s fall production, have nothing better to do than tie each other up in love and power games, and that’s kind of sad.

Problem is, they’re only truly alive when they’re gaming each other.

It’s not surprising that the MSU students uncorked “Figaro” at full fizz — after all, they’re vibrant young people close in age to the horny aristocrats and servants of Mozart’s time, and nearly as fond of playacting.

The production’s light touch disguised its high professionalism. A seamless blend of engaging acting, split-second body movement and powerful, polished singing continues to be the hallmark of MSU’s amazing opera program.

Unfortunately, the understaffed pit orchestra did not match the singers’ professional heights. The strings struggled with tinfoil-chewing intonation all night. It could have been an evening-killer, especially when Mozart was the potential victim, but the singers flew over the dishwater on wings of gold.

Meeting the challenge of high farce, the cast worked endless bits of business and tropes of body language into the counterpoint like so much more music. Jessie Neilson made the evening’s biggest splash as the Countess Almaviva, who thinks she is losing her husband to a younger woman. In a spellbinding, moonlit-garden scene, Neilson sang a bravura aria while snapping her finger to freeze and unfreeze four furtive pairs of silhouetted lovers.

As Cherubino — a girl-obsessed young boy in the plot, but really a sexually ambiguous sprite — Jacqueline King never stood still. She sang one aria in a dozen positions — pacing around the room, standing on a couch, kneeling on the floor — without dropping the thread. Everything about her — her mock-military getups, thigh-high boots, and thick hair that kept on tumbling out of various disguises — was buoyantly erotic.

Matthew Begale cut a fine figure as Figaro, the plucky servant who struggles to keep his dibs on gorgeous fiancé Susanna — soprano Elizabeth Toy, a future star, a captivating vanilla bean of a girl with a strong, nimble voice.

God knows where Begale’s commanding baritone comes from — he’s thin as a carriage wheel — but his personality is as solid and distinctive as his voice. He nailed all of his big moments, but it was great fun just to see him stab an imaginary foe with a knitting needle or tra-la-la his way into a room, usually before some frustrating new plot development was thrown at him.

The solos were strong and the duets were a joy, but the ensembles were best of all. The characters of “Figaro” scheme and fight in twos, threes, sixes and sevens, forming and dissolving alliances as they go. What a tiresome lot they — or we — would be if Mozart’s music didn’t weave our arguments and cross-purposes into a sublime counterpoint, offering redemption without pain to a race of undeserving fools.