SMU Meadows Opera Theater presents The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro, a production of the SMU Meadows School of the Arts under the direction of Hank Hammett opened February 2 for a four-show run at the Bob Hope Theater on the SMU campus.

The Marriage of Figaro is an opera sung in Italian – with libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte married to music by Mozart.  Paul Phillips conducts the Meadows Opera Orchestra.

I attended the show for the purpose of taking in the visual spectacle – costumes, hair/makeup, sets, and lighting – all designed by Meadows MFA candidates Rachel Finn (sets), Caitlin Rain (costumes), and Maxwell Bowman (lighting). 

However I’d be remiss not to mention the absolutely stunning performances of the singers and musicians.  This cannot be an easy show to sing.  It’s over three hours in length.  The soloists are all singing for the majority of that time – singing solos, duets, trios, and ensemble pieces in Italian.  Projecting without a microphone for that length of time as a soloist is an amazing feat alone.  That they were spot on, sounded absolutely sublime, and were acting and dancing at the same time boggles the mind.  Clearly I was very, very impressed.  I attended on Friday night, so I saw Julie Marx, Julie Dieltz, Hannah Rigg, Njabulo Mthimkhulu, Paul Kroeger, Laura Smolik, and Rebecca Roose in the roles that had two actors.

Paul Phillips’ tiny orchestra, who filled the theater with the lush Mozart score,

handled the music with aplomb.  Jason Smith played the harpsichord from onstage for a nice period contrast to the full orchestra.

English subtitles appeared projected on a small screen above center stage, but honestly the show was so interesting to look at – and funny, I caught myself forgetting to read them.

I have not been drawn to opera in the past, but this performance was entertaining, exquisite to see and to hear, and enjoyable from curtain to curtain.

On to the assignment.  Finn, Rain, and Bowman are third-year MFA students at Meadows – Figaro is probably one of their last major projects.  I’d say they are all ready to walk the stage – this was an interesting, innovative, and technically stunning show to see.

The Sets

The audience gasped audibly when the curtain rose after the orchestra’s opening piece set the mood.  The set is that impactful.  What Finn designed for the show is a minimalist, stylized, tall environment that works for all four acts – even though each act is set in a different location – and one of the acts is outdoors!  Even more interesting because the curtain doesn’t close between Act 1 and 2 or between Act 3 and 4.  With minimal stage business, we are suddenly in a different place and the opera just continues.

I’ll write about the integration of the set and lighting a bit later.  One thing I learned from this production is that, when really done well, these three disciplines (set, costume, and lighting) are integrally connected.  Figaro is a good example of that.

Finn has created an interior room for her set.  Four doors, two on each side and a large square window with French doors upstage complete the environment.  She’s also built a false floor and used light wood – like a birch color – to suggest hardwoods.  The set is tall – the doors must be 10 feet or 12 feet tall – and stately.  She’s applied some molding to suggest panels, but the whole “room” is painted white with some tone-on-tone striated washes that looked like faux marble from Row Q.

Upstage, when one exits the French doors, there is a balcony with a heavy stone-appearing railing.  Behind the railing is the secret to the success of the set.  Finn has calculated that if she switches out the outdoor panorama (a combination of photography and stage bushes and trees - I think) for each act and replaces the one or two pieces of furniture in the room, suddenly we’ve moved to a different room.  Behind a white set, the realistic color of the background is both surprising and beautiful.

Act 1 takes place in a room between the chambers of the Count and the Countess – the room the Count wants Figaro and Susanna to live in after their imminent wedding.  When the curtain rises, there is one upholstered chair on the stage.  That’s it for furniture.

Act 2 adds a dressing screen as a prop to hide behind, a settee and a new outdoor scene to look at – a classic symmetrical formal garden.  In a moment, we process that and believe we are in a different room – but one that shares the balcony.  Success.  This is the Countess’ boudoir. 

Act 3 (after intermission – where once again I marvel at the inadequate restroom situation for both Bob Hope and Caruth Auditorium) and the curtain rises to place us in the Count’s room.  Another outdoor backdrop informs us we’ve moved again.  The count has a desk and two desk chairs in his room, house left.  A pair of chandeliers have been lowered and are later lit to suggest the dusk is turning to evening.

The open-curtain switch to Act 4 is probably the piece-de-resistance for Finn’s set. In an instant, the upstage wall of French doors rolls away, the backdrop changes, and a bigger-than-lifesize classical figure sculpture (that looks like it weighs a ton) lowers noiselessly from above.  The room we’ve watched all evening is now an outdoor gazebo. The transformation is a stroke of genius, but might not be as believable without the able collaboration of Bowman’s lighting.  This is one of his best moments – more on that later.

Overall, Finn’s sets and props offered the perfect marriage of set, lighting, and costume and  “fell away” to allow the audience to focus on the story and the characters – something that takes more concentration in an opera that many other forms of theater.  Playing against mostly white, costumes, props, and actors pop.

There were only a couple of moments where my suspended disbelief was interrupted.  I noticed almost right away that Finn had built a false floor to her set that was pitched upstage in a sort of forced perspective. I assumed (correctly!) someone would be going over that balcony and needed a place to land out of our view.  While that was fine with me, what caught my attention was that the bottoms of the four doors house left and right hadn’t been cut to match the pitch of the floor.

The other moment was in Act 3 when practically the entire cast left the stage out the French doors quickly, that part of the set jiggled noticeably.  At the time, we didn’t know that was a removable section of the set, so it just appeared unstable.

The Lighting

Bowman’s lighting was a masterpiece of subtlety.  Without us really realizing it, he made us recognize morning, daytime, and evening light; indoors, outdoors, and a couple of really wonderful times, gave us a moving spot for an actor’s gorgeous solo in front of – or on the downstage edge of - the set.

I mentioned above that I realized how synchronized the vision of these three roles must be.  Of the three, I probably understand the technical aspect of lighting the least, and yet I realize how critical the lighting is.

The Countess has a solo at the beginning of Act 2 lit with a spot downstage house right.  This is a beautiful moment in the show.

The best moments of Bowman’s design come in the second half of the show.  Act 3 happens at dusk and there is some beautiful lighting happening behind the French doors.  There’s a moment when the Countess enters from the balcony in an absolutely gorgeous black dress and the lowering golden sunset cast on her silhouette is breathtaking.

At some point during Act 3, the chandeliers in the Count’s office are lit but it happened so naturally I didn’t even notice for a while.  The sun is setting through out this Act.

Bowman’s design shows off best during the set change from Act 3 to 4.  Right before our eyes, Finn’s set transforms – the back wall rolls away, the statue lowers in. And then – boom – Bowman hits the button and without moving, we’re outside in the moonlight.  What he’s done is transformed a tall, marble indoor room into an open-air gazebo in a park in the moonlight.  How’d he do that?  Well, I don’t know the technical terms, but he’s lowered the lights on the set and applied an outdoor green color to the evening lighting.  What really makes us believe we are outside is the complex shadows of tree limbs and leaves that Bowman casts over the entire set.  Subtle but believable.  And right before our eyes!

There was only one time I saw a shadow cast on the backdrop and that was the Count’s head during Act 4.  It was a very brief moment among many moments of unobtrusively designed lighting.  While I liked the chandeliers in the Count’s room, I wish they had been larger to fill that space. Finally, I thought the lanterns in the final act were too weak and could have really made some neat shadow and lighting effects had they had more power and reach.

The Costumes

Ms. Rain really stole the show with her stylish period costumes and her color theme.  Had I not come to Figaro to write about costume, it may have taken me some time to realize what she was doing with color because it appeared so natural.  Once I realized that Rain’s costumes were all black and white – with just a touch of pink here and there – I couldn’t wait to see how she would pull it off throughout the show.

Here’s where the collaboration of the three designers was brilliant.  Take natural light combined with a white set (the only color being the outdoor backdrop); then add black, white, and pink props and furniture; and actors wearing only black, white, and pink - and you have a very unique visual stage experience.  It was really striking without coming off as matchy-matchy or affected.

Rain’s costumes described the characters’ personalities for us.  In Act 1, we see a virginal Disney character – Susanna – in a black dress, white apron, black headband, and Mary Jane ingénue shoes.  Check.

Figaro is the good servant in his simple black and white “work clothes” and boots.  That both characters are blond and pretty adds to their virginal goodness.  Here we have the black and white striped chair as the only furniture and then our first of the recurring touches of pink – the bridal veil.  The veil is the third character at the beginning of Act 1.

Enter Bartolo and Marcellina and more character information via costume.  Bartolo takes himself too seriously in his pince-nez, fur-collared coat, and walking stick.  Marcellina is a caricature – who could take her seriously in that padded dress and red wig?  The ruffles and exaggerated silhouette of her dress are perfect.  She wears sensible Victorian shoes.

By now, it’s clear the color device Rain is using and it’s actually kind of fun to look for the pink splashes.

Cherubino and the children bring more opportunities for black and white prints, checks, and wigs.  Cherubino is clearly a woman in her vocal range, but she visually reads “boy” because of the costume and hair – saddle shoes, bolo tie, short pants, black spiky wig and short pants.  It’s a successful transformation.

The Count’s costumes were classic and formal.  In Act 3, the addition of the really awesome ivory cape was so great – attached somehow to the upper back of his jacket, it followed him around the stage, billowing and suggesting his stormy regal insolence.  The Count is a puffed-up jerk, so the formal apparel works well to punctuate that personality.

For me, the performer of the night was Laura Smolik as Countess Almaviva.  And – wow! – did she get some great props and beautiful costumes.  Finn gave the Countess a pink and black settee for her bedroom.  On the settee was a large pink pillow with black lace covering it.  Without ever saying a word, the Countess’ props and her costumes say this is one sexy woman.  (And so why is that crazy count after everything in a skirt?) When we first meet her at the beginning of Act 2, she has a long solo in a radiant white silk nightgown.  A spot lights her and she looks and sounds absolutely amazing.  Later in the Act, she puts a lacy and bejeweled robe over the gown and then we notice, wait, it’s not completely white – it pools to pink at the bottom.  The subtlety is nice and the theme is upheld.

Later, the countess gets a huge off-the-shoulder black ball gown with a diamond-detailed belt.  Just peeking up out of the bodice is a pink underlayer – so pretty.

Poor Susanna has to wear her black dress and white apron all through the show until the wedding scene at the end of Act 3.  Finally, she gets a costume change into a really dazzling short pink wedding dress with a full skirt and pink heels.  Now she really appears to be a Disney princess.  With her blond hair and the pink veil, she is quite a picture of virginal bridehood among the rest of the black-and-white outfitted cast.

A couple of notes on costume.  I would have spray painted the children’s straw hats white.  The natural yellow/tan color was distracting in the wonderful forced color scheme.  The character of Don Curzio is dressed in a really great Panama suit throughout the show.  The suit also reads too yellow to pass for white onstage.  I got used to it, but it was noticeable at first.

Conclusion

This performance was a true tour-de-force.  I’m sold – I will not miss an opera performance at Meadows ever again.  Bravo to Hammett, Phillips, cast and crew.  MFA candidates – great design!  Your collaboration supported actors well and made a long show thoroughly unforgettable!