Greensboro Opera hits the high notes

by Amy Kingsley

‘“All right ladies and gentlemen,’” says stage manager Katie Preissner. ‘“Can I have places for Act II?’”

The performers taper their conversations and move into the positions they’ll hold before the klieg lights arc and suffuse the set. Soprano Suzan Hanson, who plays Countess Almaviva, sits in front of a bench with her head bowed and a plate of grapes in her hand.

Offstage, some of the other actors snicker because the prop is a last minute substitution ‘— grapes instead of chocolates. It is not the only thing amiss at the first run through of Greensboro Opera Company’s ‘“Marriage of Figaro’”. Right now the set is a few stand-in pieces of furniture and a series of colored tapelines on the floor. Instead of an orchestra, a single electric piano plays the elaborate Mozart score and the performers wear jeans in lieu of period garb.

But when Holsonbake commences the Countess’ opening aria, she makes it clear there is one thing very ready for opening night Friday, Nov. 4 at War Memorial Coliseum. The piece opens quietly, but the volume slowly rises with the character’s grief until the large lobby of the Hamilton Lakes Swim and Tennis Club seems almost unable to hold it.

And the Countess has a lot to be sad about, what with being a key player in a love polygon so complicated that it might baffle the most hardened devotee of daytime television. Her husband, the philandering Count, is eager to take advantage of his feudal right to take the manservant’s place on the first night after the wedding. His valet Figaro and bride-to-be Susanna are as keen on that as the Countess, so the three transcend caste to upend the Count’s plans.

Composer Mozart fell victim to the vagaries of royal favoritism when he lost the esteem of nobility and died a beggar. His choice of librettist, Lorenzo da Ponte, also demonstrated a free thinking bent that resulted in this unconventional narrative with its dim view of regal antics.

There are several subplots, of course, including the underhanded Dr. Bartolo who wants Figaro to marry his servant Marcellina to cancel a debt and the amorous Cherubino with his designs on every female character. A number of supporting players with impressive vocal muscle plug the plot holes and provide comic relief to round out the 2005 fall production.

‘“[‘The Marriage of Figaro’] not only has stunningly beautiful music but it also has an incredibly tight plot,’” says stage director Linda Brovsky. ‘“It is very humorous but also very humane; there is a great deal of compassion for human frailties.’”

The opera premiered in Vienna in May 1786, but Brovsky said the characters resonate with audiences more than 200 years later. Indeed, the script trades in timeless themes of love, betrayal and power ‘— elements that fuel everything from novels to primetime news. Mozart revolutionized opera with ‘“Figaro’”, which featured a servant as the protagonist that outwits his corrupt boss.

Figaro plays a minor role in Act II, a pivotal scene that belongs almost solely to the women and the boy Cherubino who suffer under the Count’s licentious designs. By the beginning of the act, the characters have coalesced with a loose plan to get back at the Count, but an early duet between Susanna and Countess Almaviva resembles the operatic equivalent of a modern-day catfight.

Despite the distrust, the two manage to dress Cherubino ‘— who is played by mezzo soprano Carolyn Kahl ‘— as Susanna to fool the Count. The women chew up the scenery as they bury the boy in exaggerated costume pieces amidst a flurry of choral acrobatics. The women briefly fumble with the skirt as they hit their blocking and vocal notes with Swiss precision.

Most of the performers live in New York City and have been in Greensboro a couple of weeks for the rehearsal. Because the run is only two nights, their entire sojourn south of the Mason-Dixon will last less than three weeks.

Elizabeth Racheva hails originally from Raleigh, but now lives in Dallas by way of New York. She plays Barbarina, the gardener’s daughter. She watches from the designated backstage until her entrance in Act IV. She and the other spectators crane their heads to watch the show, laughing at the funny parts and the technical snafus of the first real-time run.

Soprano Susan Holsonbake bounces off stage after an athletic vocal exchange and several minutes of frantic pacing. In the wings she sticks out her tongue and sucks in a deep breath. She then turns and books it around the taped perimeter to her next entrance on the far side of the stage.

‘“Every time it is unique,’” says Artistic Director Valery Ryvkin. ‘“Sometimes it is harder going, but we are blessed here. Sometimes the orchestra might have a mind of its own, or one of the singers is not prepared. But if it’s well rehearsed in advance it usually falls into place.’”

The singers and the orchestra have been rehearsing separately for the past couple of weeks. On Oct. 29 the singers will join the orchestra for the first vocal rehearsal, which occurs without any of the blocking. After that, a full orchestra dress rehearsal in the performance space is scheduled and there will be a final run before the show opens in front of a general audience.

The entire experience is a bit of a whirlwind for performers and crew, but the professionals enlisted as cast earn their living dashing around the country to snag parts in regional opera companies. The Count, played by baritone Jonathan Hays, has performed for audiences from Kansas to Cape Town, South Africa.

Not all the performers live outside the city limits. Bass Robert Wells, who plays gardener Antonio, serves on the UNCG School of Music faculty. Although Ryvkin is in his first year as the artistic director for the opera, he has conducted the orchestra for the fall performance for 10 years.

Ever since the Greensboro Opera Company started producing a full-scale fall performance, it has occurred at War Memorial Auditorium. The venue is also the home of season performances by the Greensboro Symphony Orchestra.

Act II ends after three more singers join the stage for a seven-part vocal choreography stunning in its accuracy. All but the Countess exit swiftly, leaving the stage and the character as bereft as she was at the top of the Act. Alas, she and the would-be lovers will have to endure two more acts of misunderstanding and backstabbing before the denouement.

‘“So, would you like Susanna missing all of the words?’” Holsonbake says with a laugh at the first note she gets from Ryvkin about dropping a line.

The directors and cast focus on the finer points of the surprisingly smooth run. Ryvkin delivers his notes on tempo and dynamics as much with his gesticulating arms as with his voice, like he is conducting his own rapid-fire delivery. Brovsky is concerned about whether a pink or a beige ribbon better suits the Cherubino dress.

The opera is conducted entirely in the original Italian, but those who attend the full performance will be provided a kind of cheat sheet with projected super titles that describe what is happening on stage. That might help the citizens of this North Carolina city see what is so special to Brovsky about an opera written and produced across the ocean so long ago.

‘“Audiences see themselves in the characters,’” she said. ‘“In the end this is really a story about love.’”

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