‘Figaro’ a highlight of any concert seasonIn 1784, the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais’ “Le Mariage de Figaro” was banned by the Viennese censors due to its satire of the aristocracy. It would have to wait two years for the genius of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte to resurrect it under its more famous guise, the opera Le Nozze di Figaro. The work immediately became one of Mozart’s most successful stage dramas due to its abundance of catchy tunes, its comic antics and its poignantly dramatic soliloquies. Mozart’s musical genius, in conjunction with the characters’ sexual tensions and passions and the plot’s myriad of subtle socio-political commentaries, easily make the opera a high point of any concert season. These delights graced the stage of DeVos Symphony Hall this past weekend when the Grand Rapids Opera presented Mozart’s perennial favorite with a talented ensemble of young singers. While Figaro and company reenacted Beaumarchais’ drama in traditional sets that hardly exuded the charm of old Seville, this absence of dramaturgic innovation is perhaps what allowed this production to speak more faithfully of Mozart’s beloved comedy. The orchestra also played splendidly, coloring Mozart’s musical phrases with a bright vivacity and a precision that similarly characterized last month’s well-played Mahler Symphony. The well-balanced cast was perhaps what made this Figaro one of the season’s musical highlights. Anne-Carolyn Bird was a delight with her vocally fresh and dramatically alert interpretation of the sprightly maid Susanna. She was somewhat stiff at the beginning of the opera, but warmed up considerably to the role’s histrionics by the end of the evening. Hers is a bright, focused bell-like tone that has the right texture for such roles. It helped that her diction was exceptional. Of special mention was her outstanding Deh vieni non tardar during the opera’s fourth act. Her mischievous accomplice, Cherubino, was sung by the mezzo soprano Marguerite Krull. Ms. Krull adroitly portrayed the androgynous page with the needed humor and sexual tension that makes the character such a delight. Her first and second act arias were generally sung well, even if her choice of coloratura did not suit the pieces or her technique, particularly in the aria Non so piu cosa son cosa faccio. Even better was the evening’s Contessa, Julianna Di Giacomo. Ms. Di Giacomo recently made her Met debut singing Clotilde to Hasmik Papian’s Norma, and it is always such a delight to hear such a fantastic young singer assuming roles that are more telling of her skill. For a voice of her size, Di Giacomo was surprisingly able to negotiate Mozart’s difficult writing with ease. It is a large instrument that shows plenty of promise due to its tonal beauty, its flexibility, and its rich palette of colors. Her opening aria, Porgi Amor, was sung with the pathos that makes the Countess such a sympathetic character, and her third act aria, Dove sono, was a standout due to her fantastic technique and breath control. Her participation in the opera’s multiple ensembles also showed a sizable voice that easily cut through the singers and the orchestra. Is an Aida or an Amelia a future possibility? On a less impressive scale was the remainder of the cast. The Marcellina of Linn Maxwell-Keller was physically correct as Figaro’s mother, but she lacked firmness to her tone and was often free about pitch. Dr. Bartolo, sung by onetime Calvin professor Bill Bokhout, was also a slight disappointment. The voice lacked space in the lower reaches and sounded somewhat wooly and underwhelming in his first act aria. The baritone Matthew Burns, who sang the opera’s eponymous character, sang with enthusiasm and verve, but lacked the authority and dark bass color to bring a certain earthiness I’d like to hear in the role. More suited to the job was the Count Almaviva of David Adam Moore. He certainly had a snide quality to him that made the Count such a dichotomy of characterization. His tone may have lacked the opulence of his stage wife, but he was able to sing in character and brought authority to the role. One could wish that his voice were slightly bigger to compete with his colleagues in the ensembles, but he gave a good performance. While certain phrases lack finish, Moore’s Hai gia vinta la causa was well executed. The supporting cast was generally good, with Jessica Louise Coe showing potential as Barbarina. As for the orchestral performance, it can be reiterated that the Grand Rapids Symphony generally does a good job with the music it’s being asked to play. The conducting, on the other hand, was a mixed bag. Robert Lyall could allow singers to breath and provide more transparency to a score modernized to accommodate the 21st century symphony hall. I generally like Romantic operas, but I think Mozart is a composer whose music is better suited to a more intimate ensemble, sensitive to the singers’ instruments. There was many a time that I found the orchestra covering the singers, and while some conductors familiar to Mozart can easily reign an orchestra of the Grand Rapids Symphony’s size, Lyall does not phrase quite so sensitively to bring the same clarity to the score. The Grand Rapids Opera fortunately chose a masterpiece like Figaro to celebrate its 40th anniversary. If the performance standard of its shows continue to remain and exceed that of this Nozze, the company could certainly look to expanding its repertory in order to educate and reach out to the Grand Rapids community with this glorious art form. The Opera ends its season this year with Richard Wagner’s Der Fliegende Holländer. Is it recommendable? After seeing this Figaro, I can most certainly recommend it.