The Washington Times: Aurora Opera charms with 'Secret Marriage'
by Terry Ponick
Arlington: The Opera Theatre of Northern Virginia, long a fixture of the Arlington area’s vibrant performing arts scene, has rechristened itself the Aurora Opera Theatre. Now resident in Rosslyn’s new cultural center, the Artisphere—formerly the home of the relocated Newseum—the newly revived company will retain its predecessor’s longstanding commitment to showcase both new and unknown operas at affordable prices. Featuring up-and-coming singers in key roles, some productions will be performed in English.
Case in point: Aurora’s 2010-2011 season opener, a sprightly new production of Domenico Cimarosa’s Il matrimonio segreto (The Secret Marriage). Opening last weekend and running through this Saturday, October 23 at the Spectrum—now regarded as part of the aforementioned Artisphere complex—this 1792 gem was once as highly regarded as Mozart’s comic masterpieces. It is said that its premiere performance inspired the lengthiest encore in the history of opera.
Though infrequently performed in our own times, Secret Marriage remains quite charming today, notable for its realistic characters, good-natured humor, and almost Mozartian “let’s forgive everyone anyway” finale. Its score is not as memorable as those of Mozart, but it possesses a natural graciousness that’s absent from many other operatic works of the period. As for the opera’s plot itself — we’re let in on its little “secret” only a couple of musical pages into the opening act. It seems that Carolina, the irrepressible younger daughter of a prosperous English merchant named Geronimo, has secretly married Paulino, one of her father’s employees. Problem is, back in those days, newly wealthy English capitalists frequently aspired to joining the ranks of the aristocracy by marrying their daughters off to down-and-out English lords in desperate need of a substantial dowry to maintain their lavish lifestyles.
Geronimo has already employed Paulino as a go-between to ensnare the foppish Count Robinson for his elder daughter, Elisetta. By implication, Carolina will now move to the on-deck circle. But when the Count arrives, he falls for Carolina instead. Making matters even worse, Fidalma, the propertied sister of Geronimo who resides in his household, only has eyes for Paulino. Predictably, everyone behaves quite badly and quite musically, or this wouldn’t be comic opera.
Aurora mounts a surprisingly effective budget version of Cimarosa’s opera. Making the most out of the somewhat sterile Spectrum space—which this reviewer last visited back in the days of the late, lamented “Le Neon” French-American theater company—the company placed the production’s small orchestra at the rear of the stage behind a translucent scrim, in front of which were hung a series of empty picture frames that were surprisingly effective in suggesting some grand parlor in the merchant's house.
Elisetta (Elizabeth Kluegel) eavesdrops on secret marrieds Carolina (Esther Heideman) and Paolino (Keith Hudspeth).
Making effective use of a few minimal props, the period-costumed singers had plenty of room to roam, providing a sense of spaciousness in the facility’s rather cramped stage area. The singers themselves seemed, frankly, to have been better rehearsed than we sometimes see in more sumptuous, more expensive productions. The result of all of the above: a really good production of a rarely heard but enjoyable opera at ticket prices that even casual moviegoers can afford.
The cast was almost uniformly excellent. Topping the list was baritone Michael Nansel, whose boisterous, much put-upon Geronimo was the very epitome of a blustery nouveau riche paterfamilias. His booming, expressive instrument embodied the impatience and frustration of a driving businessman who’s accustomed to complete control, yet finds his well-ordered world spinning rapidly in a different direction.
As his polar opposite, the slight, dissolute, yet relatively harmless Count Robinson, baritone Tad Czyzewski was equally adept at rounding out his character both physically and vocally. More crisp and precise than Michael Nansel—and intentionally so—Czyzewski’s count is clearly an aristocrat, but is too impoverished to risk insulting the man who might be able to re-stock his empty bank account. Somewhat less effective was tenor Keith Hudspeth as Paolino. While he looked and acted the part of the opera’s romantic lead with considerable deadpan comic assurance, his instrument seemed strained at times, and his intonation was not always precise. That said, he fit in well with the ensemble particularly in the several marvelous quartets and sextets that distinguish this opera.
Happily, the ladies did not take a back seat to the gents during Sunday’s performance. Soprano Esther Heideman was the perfect Carolina, bold, assertive, yet simultaneously ladylike and elegant as well. Her lovely, honeyed voice was consistently a pleasure to hear. Her phrasing was elegant, and her diction superb. As her quarrelsome elder sister, Elisetta, soprano Elizabeth Kluegel also sang well. Her character gets a bit less to do in this opera than her younger sister. But she also has the fun of being an almost-villain in the show, and Kluegel’s youthful-sounding, edgy instrument seemed to catch Elisetta’s quarrelsome essence. And a hat tip as well to mezzo-soprano Alexandra Christoforakis. Her formidable, supple voice was a perfect match for the character of Fidalma, an increasingly desperate old maid who imagines that the younger Paolino truly fancies her. Christoforakis is a fine actress as well, and actually succeeds in making her outrageous character not only believable but even, at times, sympathetic.
Happily, this fine cast of singers was aided and abetted by an equally fine instrumental ensemble. Consisting of approximately eleven musicians, the small orchestra sounded much bigger, yet endeavored never to overshadow the vocalists. They also sounded as well-rehearsed as the singers, and the strings—often a weak point in smaller opera companies—were first rate. An additional hat tip goes to music director and conductor John Edward Niles for his efforts.
Kudos to David Carl Toulson for his unobtrusive direction, to set designer Christian Hershey for making the most from the least, to costume designer Jennifer Tardiff for her period sensitivity, and to lighting designer Liz Replogle for providing just the right highlighting and backdrops without fussing.