Opera for Beginners

Photo by Christine BrandeSo you want a gateway opera—somethingwith a plot thick enough to keep your head up during the shrieking and no female Wagnerians in pointed bras vaulting up and down the scale? Try this.

Mozart's Marriage of Figaro with Opera Pacific at the Orange County Performing Arts Center qualifies as fine opera, bursting at the seams with famous arias that sound vaguely familiar. Its overture has been in countless commercials, and "Voi Che Sapete" is a quasi-anthem of misguided love. And as opera buffa, a genre known for its lively plot and humorous machinations, it's the perfect entry point for someone looking to dip their toe in the chilly waters of classical opera.

Originally a comedic play by Frenchman Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, Figaro was banned from theaters in 1782 by Austrian Emperor Joseph II because it dissed the government and openly criticized the aristocracy. No wonder the French Revolution occurred a few years later.

In Marriage of Figaro, the soubrette soprano plays her typical "ana-ina" role. Soubrette(French for servant girl) sopranos often play roles like Despina, Zerlina, Serpina, Norina, Susanna, Adina and Bellina, hence the "ana-ina" moniker. This time, an "ana," Susanna is about to marry the dashing valet Figaro (Bass-Baritone). However, their boss, the Count Almaviva, lusts after Susanna and vows to find a way to "be with her," even arranging for the couple's new sleeping quarters to be suspiciously near his own, perfect for late-night escapades.

Although the court had recently abolished the right of the lord of the manor to sleep with a female servant on her wedding night, the Count considers re-enacting the law for his own personal benefit. Susanna confides in Figaro, and the two vow to create as much havoc as possible for the count. Meanwhile, Countess Almaviva pines for her philanderer and Cherubino, the token "pants role" a.k.a. a woman dressed up as a man dressed up as a woman, enters the stew. Insert Shakespearean gags and mix-ups here.

Since the Beaumarchais play was on Joseph II's blacklist, Mozart hesitated to write an opera that might get banned. He and his librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte, skirted around the issue of treason by attacking women (sigh) instead of the government. For example, in Act IV, instead of the political diatribe from the play, Figaro excoriates womankind (always an easy option). "Just open your eyes, you rash and foolish men," he says calling the female sex other epithets such as "alluring vixens, smiling she-bears, malign doves and masters of deceit" before ending with "The rest I need not say, for everyone knows it already."

This opera offers something for everyone with a ticket: a little sleaze, some woman-bashing, cross-dressing, and, of course, twitterpated love. However, Mozart can be slightly exasperating for the musician. Sure, his music is undeniably beautiful, but it's sometimes almost too perfect, excessive, like gorging yourself on gumdrop notes. Performing perfect construction demands skill. The notes are so simple, rarely as clustered along the staff as Rachmaninoff or Stravinsky, and yet one rotten note in Mozart and the whole piece sours. It's kind of like taking away the center stone in a Roman arch.

His tight architecture requires exceptional powers of control for the singer. "You can't get away with much of the bull-in-a-china-shop stuff as in other operas that are more about the drama," one baritone told me.

In addition, Mozart tends to build his operas "around the passagio." Passagio literally means passageway of the voice in Italian, and Mozart likes to bounce back and forth between the various passageways, which can be uncomfortable for the singer and make for such distracting theatrics as pulling out the white handkerchief and holding the notes superlong. If you can't legitimately hold a note, you will be discovered here.

Note control, like opera love, is something acquired, and Figaro is a nice place to start.

OPERA PACIFIC AT SEGERSTROM HALL AT THE ORANGE COUNTY PERFORMING ARTS CENTER, 600 TOWN CENTER DR., COSTA MESA, (800) 34-OPERA;www.operapacific.org. OPENS TUES., 7:30 p.m. ALSO Jan. 20 & 22, 7:30 p.m.; Jan. 23, 2 p.m. $35-$185.


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