Opera Review: Belmont Opera Theatre hits all the right notes in ‘Figaro’

figaroI hadn’t been back on Belmont University’s campus in years before last night and was pleasantly surprised. The campus was bustling – streets full of cars, sidewalks full of people. Things were even more energetic inside the university’s intimate Troutt Theatre on Thursday night, when Belmont Opera Theatre’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro opened for a four-day engagement.

This production’s theatrical director is voice faculty member Kristi Whitten. The orchestra is conducted by the always affable Robert Gregg. Throughout the evening the orchestra handled its parts with finesse.

The production was presented with arias and ensembles in Italian with English supertitles, while English dialogue took the place of recitative. I’m tempted to criticize the overly conservative nature of the production elements – everything felt like an opera (wigs, fluffy gowns, a lit chandelier). Nothing was particularly innovative.  And yet, a straightforward production like this proved to be a fantastic platform for these developing artists to stand on.

Kudos to Whitten for only using three ringers while at the same time providing undergraduates the chance to sing. The ringers were two graduate students – Nashville Opera Fellows Amanda Walden (as Susanna) and Alyson Haley (as Marcellina) – and one alumnus in the role of Figaro, the veteran singer Benjamin Schultz.

I expected the ringers to steal the show from the undergraduates, but I was wrong. Those Belmont undergraduates could really sing and act. The program did not include bios for any of the cast or crew, so I don’t know what year of study these folks were in.  I expect many of them were upperclassmen in the competitive music theatre program.

Jairus Maples’ (Bartolo) entrance with Haley was the first moment of strong acting in the show, and it set the tone for the rest of the production. His singing was less engaging than his acting, but of course he’s just 20.   Goodness, if he’s this strong now, John Hoomes should pluck him for Nashville Opera’s farm team.

Heather Aikens’ (Countess Almaviva) entrance in Act II was impressive. Her voice – creamy and clear – was consistently great throughout the show. Clementina Moreira (Cherubino) was fun to watch. Her facial gestures were immensely expressive, and she nailed her arias.

Walden and Haley were fantastic when they sang together (or at each other, as was often the case). Their scenes with the men in the cast never rose to the same heights, except when Jairus was onstage as Bartolo.

I noticed that the men’s voices had difficulty carrying in the Troutt. At least, that’s how it sounded from my vantage point at the back of the hall. The hall’s acoustics may be responsible, since I’m not convinced the women were always out-singing the men.  It may be worth considering this with future programming decisions.

In all, Opera Theatre’s Figaro proved to be a fantastic student production. The audience laughed at all the jokes, which were in Italian. It’s a fun show, it’s done well, it’s just $10, and the next show is tonight.  See you there.

IF YOU GO

Belmont University’s Opera Theatre presents Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Performances are 7:30 p.m. Friday, Nov. 8 and Saturday, Nov. 9 and 2 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 10 at the Troutt Theatre, corner of Belmont Boulevard and Compton Ave. Tickets are $10 adults, $5 seniors and students (free for Belmont students). For tickets, click here.

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About Kyle J. Baker

Kyle J. Baker is a Nashville-based composer and impresario most known for directing Nashville's Soundcrawl Festival. He composes for acoustic and digital forces with a recurring emphasis on rhythmic post-minimal structures. Classical in heritage, but vernacular in vocabulary, his music has garnered such attention as 2008 Belmont University Composition Prize, Honorable Mention in the 2008 Pathways Young Band Composition Contest as well as distribution by Brassworks4.com, His notable teachers include Ken Read, John LaBarbara, Delfeayo Marsalis and William Pursell. Born in Scotland and raised in St. Louis, Baker holds an M.Mus from Belmont University and makes his home in Cane Ridge, Tenn. with his wife Joy and cat Lili.

Comments

  1. Does this mean you are returning to watch the Friday evening performance?

  2. Sharon Gregg, retired Director of Admissions for the School of Music at Belmont says:

    Kyle, just as a point of reference, Musical Theatre students are busy with their own Fall and Spring productions and are almost never involved in Opera. Opera casts include both undergraduate and graduate students.

  3. Jessica J. says:

    Hi Kyle,

    First off – you misspelled the Countess’s name. It is Countess Almaviva, not Almavivia. There are no musical theater students in the opera production – I would assume you know this since you are a Belmont alum and from the music program. Just incase you didn’t realize during your time at Belmont, classical voice students are not part of the musical theater department and musical theater students are not part of the opera theater department.

    You say you are “tempted to criticize the overly conservative nature of the performance elements.” I realize this might be in regard to your opinion of costuming, set design, etc. However, you state this right after you talk about the recitative as spoken dialogue. I would say recitative being replaced with spoken dialogue is a very modern approach for this opera. Maybe you should further research other Figaro productions at various well-known opera houses – The Metropolitan Opera, for example. I guess you would say their period approach to this production in the past was not particularly innovative, either, since they used “wigs, fluffy gowns, and lit chandeliers,” which, by the way, is very consistent with the time period this opera was written (1786).

    I’m not exactly sure what you mean about Nashville Opera’s “farm team.” I’m sure John Hoomes wouldn’t appreciate this – nor the overall “slang” nature of your review. I’m not sure what audience you’re trying to cater to, but it is certainly not a musically intellectual one.

    Although Belmont Opera Theater, I assume, appreciates having a review written about them, I find this review not only factually inconsistent but also written from the viewpoint of someone completely unqualified to review opera. The only thing consistent about your review are your contradictions.

  4. Alyson Haley says:

    Kyle, thank you very much for attending our production and for your kind words. I just wanted to clarify that Nashville Opera Fellows are not “ringers,” we are graduate classical vocal performance students just like many of the talented principals in this cast including the Countess (Heather Aikins), the Count (Justin Colon), Cherubino (Clementina Moreira) and Basilio (Elvie Williams). 🙂

    • Alyson Haley says:

      But thank you very much for the honor of being considered a “ringer”! 🙂

    • Greetings Ms. Haley- I appreciate you saying that. I took the marks in the program to mean you were one of two graduate students in the cast. My apologies to those I misattributed as undergraduates- I know how rigorous the grad program is.
      It’s only fair to take a performer’s age and experience into account when I review; all the more reason to give detailed program notes and credit to each individual’s achievement of their academic status.

      • Alyson Haley says:

        Thank you, Kyle, for your reply. Your idea of clarifying the level of study of cast members sounds like a great addition on future programs. And it makes perfect sense that you would take age and experience into consideration when writing a review. Thank you again for attending and reviewing our opera! 🙂

  5. Hey Jessica, the misspelling of the Countess’ name was an editor’s typo — i.e., my fault — and was not something the reviewer did. Thanks for catching it!! Regarding John Hoomes: he is one of the most down-to-earth people I’ve ever met. He is a lover of language, to be sure, but he also has an Alabama boy’s appreciation of good, old-fashioned colloquialisms. I suspect he’d get a kick out of farm team. If, on the other hand, he glares at me at the next opera, I’ll know otherwise. Finally, I’m not sure I’d compare any opera production to what goes on at the Met. You can get away with anything when you spend a kazillion dollars on it. In any case, I thought the reviewer’s observation was a fair one, and in the end he was complimentary about everything. Hard to stay mad at someone who concludes your production was “fantastic.”

  6. Mark G says:

    It would be generous to call this a “review.” Even a cursory glance makes it clear that knowledge of opera, performance, or Belmont are not qualifications needed to conjure such a “critique.” Everyone involved in the performance deserves better than this unwarranted, uneducated, incoherent, error-ridden mess of words. Freely admitting that no due diligence was done before giving the review does not excuse the author from its errant claims or assumptions. This likely “felt like an opera” because it was, well, an opera. Mozart’s masterpiece was done great service by the orchestra, director, and performers. It is an arrogant fool who feels the need to “innovate” on a classic. The traditional operatic flavor was welcome in a culture that feels the need to redo art in their own lower standards. Calling any of the performers “ringers” is a not-so-subtle slap to everyone involved, and unclear in its implications. All involved are current Belmont students, except alumnus Dr. Benjamin Schultz who graciously lent his considerable talent to the stage in a selfless, professional manor that never overshadowed the other performers. The number of flaws in this review are astounding given its fairly short breadth, and will hopefully do nothing to deter theatre goers from experiencing this wonderful production.

  7. Hal Lemel says:

    Mark G,

    Your response loses credibility when it descends into ideology and you start preaching about how only arrogant fools feel the need to ruin the purity of opera. Maybe the review contained errors, although you don’t mention any, but trying to discredit his critique because it doesn’t match your own conservative, elitist agenda simply reeks of dogmatism.

    It would seem important for a critic to mention whether a production sheds new light on a classic or simply reproduces the staid, hackneyed tropes of what an opera production is supposed to look like (wigs, chandeliers, gowns). Bringing to light substantive errors of content (which you don’t) is one thing; crudely negating an opposing ideological point of view because it isn’t yours is another. You don’t actually mention what these errors are—it’s clear your intent isn’t to set the record straight or even enlighten the reviewer, but rather to insult and put him down from your smug ivory tower.

  8. Dr. Benjamin Schultz says:

    Dear Kyle, thank you for supporting the Belmont Opera! It was a pleasure to return and work with such wonderful students and faculty! We appreciate your willingness to review the show!

    • Thanks Ben,

      It was great to see you sing again, and
      congrats on your post at Wisconsin!

      Best,

      Kyle