IU brings a jazzy version of 'Le Nozze di Figaro' to the MAC
Starting Feb. 22, Indiana University Opera Theater audiences can hear Le Nozze di Figaro, the beloved comedy by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, as Mozart himself might have heard it in the traditional "bel canto" style. Guest conductor William Crutchfield is working to revive this 18th-century method, which emphasizes smooth vocal phrases, pure tone and improvised ornamentation suited to the individual singer's voice.
"It's like jazz; it's a matter of making your own personal use of standard formulas," Crutchfield said. "Bel canto improvisation fits the particular singer's voice and the particular singer's imagination."
Composed in 1786, Le Nozze di Figaro is based on the second play in Pierre Beaumarchais' Figaro trilogy, picking up where The Barber of Seville leaves off.
Figaro, valet to Count Almaviva, has his wedding-day preparations disrupted when the Count plots the seduction of Figaro's beautiful young bride, Susanna. Meanwhile, an old creditor comes looking for payment in the form of marriage, the page Cherubino dreams of the elegant Countess, and the Countess contrives to expose her husband's infidelity. Multiple cases of mistaken identity keep this fast-moving comedy barreling along, with the legendary score containing some of Mozart's most beautiful music.
During Mozart's time, however, the notes written on the score were only the starting point for the production. Crutchfield explained that when Mozart wrote music for public performance, he left room for musicians to embellish the melodies in their own personal style. The Italian singers he worked with were accustomed to toying with the music, weaving in and out of the melody in a manner that suited their individual voices.
"The really exciting thing is that Mozart himself liked to give singing lessons, and he wrote down three complete arias showing how these improvisations could be done. So we have a really clear idea of his personal style of improvisation," Crutchfield said.
Accordingly, Crutchfield has worked with the IU singers to help them develop their own ornamentation for the performances in the Musical Arts Center.
IU student and soprano Sian Davies, who plays the Contessa, has embraced the new method, despite the considerable time required to adapt the score.
"The fact that the music is catering to our individual voices is allowing us to express Mozart's opera with even more musicality and character," she said. "I am no stranger to Mozart, especially having performed Donna Anna in Don Giovanni just last year, but this has become a totally different challenge unlike anything I have ever experienced. A deeper level of understanding of the libretto and music is making it a fun experience that I think will turn into a very entertaining performance."
Thomas Florio, an IU student who sings the part of Figaro, said working with Crutchfield has given him a new perspective on Mozart's work.
"The Maestro has a complete mastery of this opera and this style. Within the first 10 minutes of our first rehearsal he had explained the source of the perennial question about appoggiatura in Mozart recitatives and arias, how Mozart intended them to be sung and how we should sing them," he said. "He provides both an educational and professional experience and is crafting what is sure to be a wonderful performance."
The opera will be performed by two rotating casts, led by Florio and Aubrey Allicock as Figaro, Jacqueline Brecheen and Valerie Vinzant as Susanna, Wayne Hu and Austin Kness as Count Almaviva, and Davies and Elizabeth Baldwin as the Countess.
"Because we are double cast, I know that both groups will end up with very different performances, which is exactly the way it would have been in Mozart's time," Davies said.
In addition to noting the playful twists on repeated musical phrases, audiences should listen for the two other signature aspects of bel canto singing: legato, the continuous stream of breath that connects each note to the next in an unbroken flow; and the purity of resonance that removes both the breathiness associated with popular music and the harshness that can accompany high volume.
"Producing the sound in this way enhances the overtones that accompany each note, so that you are conscious of the richness that results. A big part of bel canto singing is making sure that one is always, always, always in that sweet spot," Crutchfield said.
Crutchfield comes to IU Opera Theater from New York, where he is the director of opera for the Caramoor Center for Music and the Arts. He has been on the faculty of all three New York conservatories -- Julliard, Manhattan School of Music and Mannes College of Music -- and for several years was a music critic for The New York Times. He has worked with the Canadian Opera Company, Washington Opera, Baltimore Opera, Wolf Trap Opera and many others, and for several years was the director of the Opera de Columbia in Bogota. He presently serves as principal guest conductor of the Polish National Orchestra in Warsaw and remains active as both an author and a pianist.
Guest stage director Michael Ehrman has worked with the Boston Lyric Opera, Chicago Opera Theater, Atlanta Opera, Houston Grand Opera, Greater Miami Opera and Wolf Trap Opera, among others. His experience as an acting coach includes the Israeli Vocal Arts Institute, Utah Opera and the New National Theater in Tokyo. He staged Susannah for IU Opera Theater earlier this season.
The grand set design, portraying the Count's estate in Seville, is the work of acclaimed set designer Robert O'Hearn, who retires this year after 60 years in the business.
The opera will be sung in Italian with English supertitles. Performances are at 8 p.m. Feb. 22, 23, 29 and March 1.
Tickets are on sale now at the Musical Arts Center Box Office (for information, call 812-855-7433), open Monday through Friday from 11:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; at all Ticketmaster outlets; by phone through Ticketmaster at 812-333-9955; and online at http://music.indiana.edu/opera.
To speak to any of the persons involved in the production of Le Nozze di Figaro, contact Linda Cajigas, IU Jacobs School of Music, at 812-855-9846 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or Alain Barker, IU Jacobs School of Music, at 812-856-5719 or email@example.com.