Fortunately, the Fort Worth Opera's new Marriage of Figaro has musical pleasures aplenty. It needs them to compensate for a theatrical conception that's pretty much a mess.
Mozart's opera opened Saturday night in Bass Hall, the third entry in the company's adventurous half-classic, half-modern festival.
The musical pleasures began with a smartly played overture by the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra conducted by Stewart Robertson. The mess became apparent almost immediately as well. More about that below.
Vocally, the cast is consistently pleasant. This is true not only of the principal characters but of the lesser ones as well. (In all, Figaro has 11 characters who sing vocal solos. One amazing facet of the opera is that each is a distinct and memorable individual; even Antonio the drunken gardener makes an indelible impression.)
Figaro (Donovan Singletary) and the Count (Jonathan Beyer) were both vocally and dramatically strong Saturday night, reinforcing the idea that the opera is basically a test of wills between the two.
On an equal plane were their feminine counterparts, Susanna (Andrea Carroll) and the Countess (Jan Cornelius), though the women are partners, not antagonists.
Rounding out the most prominent roles positively were Cherubino (Wallis Giunta, who has a gorgeous voice), Doctor Bartolo (Rod Nelman), Marcellina (Kathryn Cowdrick) and Don Basilio (Jamin Flabiano).
Among the briefer roles, the Barbarina of Corrie Donovan was particularly impressive.
In addition to being appealing vocalists, the cast members are good sports, gamely carrying out stage director Eric Einhorn's sometimes goofy (or worse) ideas.
For instance, when the curtain first goes up, a bent-over woman is peering under a chair, her rump high in the air. Who is this inelegant figure? Susanna. Now Susanna may be of a lower caste than the Countess, but she's not inelegant -- at least not until now.
Einhorn seems to be aiming for an earthier Figaro than usual. Even so, having characters (even Figaro) crawl around onstage seems to have little point except maybe to get a few laughs. At least the Count and Countess don't engage in such high jinks.
At one point a pregnant chorister (stage pregnant, not actually, one hopes) interacts with the Count, the obvious father. The nadir comes when Cherubino and Barbarina engage in simulated sex in a crowd scene. Sex, yes -- both characters obviously have it in mind in any production -- but in the middle of a bunch of people? Not likely.
Some innovations are neutral, such as having Susanna precede Figaro in the opening measurement scene and having the Countess sing Porgi amor (beautifully) to Susanna rather than as a soliloquy.
And at least one innovation is clever: bringing the conductor and orchestra into the action. Robertson started the orchestral introduction to Voi che sapete very slowly. I was starting to object mentally when Cherubino urged the conductor to speed it up, and the tempo accelerated as Cherubino sang the aria conventionally and gorgeously.
The sets by Michael Wingfield are modest but effective, and the costumes by Allen Charles Klein are handsome and appropriate.
Future audiences should be aware that Fort Worth is performing Figaro with only one intermission (the original has three). This makes for two long halves.
Mark Adamo's Lysistrata will be added to the company's repertory Saturday. The next two weekends will offer opportunities to experience all four operas Fridays through Sundays.