It only seems fitting that at the last minute, Hawaii Opera Theatre had to find a replacement soprano for Mozart’s madcap opera, “The Marriage of Figaro.”
New Zealand soprano Amina Edris was scheduled to appear as Susanna, the object du desir in the romantic comedy, but unexpectedly left the production just days before Friday’s opening.
Award-winning soprano Elena Galvan, who has trained in New York and San Francisco will appear as Susanna.
It won’t matter. No backstage drama can compare with the onstage hilarity of “The Marriage of Figaro.” It’s perhaps the most beloved work in the opera repertoire, with more than 150 productions in 38 countries staged in 2019 alone, according to website Operabase.
“It’s great. There are so many twists and turns. And nobody gets killed in the end!” said guest conductor David Angus, referring to the traditionally tragic ending of many operas. “I think it’s the best opera ever written, because it’s just so full of life, it’s so full of energy. It’s just the best.”
No sitcom, no soap opera, no telenovela could quite come up with a plot as convoluted as “Figaro,” and it would be fruitless to try to explain it all here. Suffice to say that it has a surprisingly modern theme, considering that it was first staged more than 230 years ago.
It’s basically a #MeToo story, with the philandering Count Almaviva (Edward Parks) trying to claim his lordly privilege to bed his maidservant Susanna before she weds his manservant Figaro (Ryan Kuster).
Meanwhile, Figaro himself has obligations to marry another woman, who is old enough to be his mother (hint, hint). He conspires with the Countess (Mané Galoyan), Susanna and others to thwart his master’s dastardly demands and get himself out of trouble. All the action takes place in a day.
Amidst all the intrigue, there are characters hiding behind furniture, in closets and in the bushes. There’s misdirection and mistaken identities.
There’s layer upon layer of confusion and fun, such as in the “pants role” (a boy character played by a female singer wearing pants.) In “The Marriage of Figaro,” it’s the romance-smitten lad Cherubino, who will be played by mezzo soprano Olivia Vote. Yet the plot has Cherubino also playing the part of a woman. So you have a woman in real life playing a boy in the opera, where he (or is it she?) winds up playing a woman.
All of that action creates a multitude of possibilities for presenting “Figaro.” There’s a veritable smorgasbord of styles and sensibilities that one can bring to the story, said director Tara Faircloth, who has directed the opera five times already.
“I like one that is full of heart and whimsy, which is certainly a choice,” Faircloth said. “Some people do a much darker version” that lean towards political and social commentary.
Instead, she like to focus on the love stories of the opera.
“We have teenagers, and we have the old people, which is pretty touching,” she said, “and then of course Figaro and Susanna, who are newlyweds, and then the Count and Countess, who are in middle age and have the seven-year itch — and what does that mean when a marriage has struggles?
“For me that’s the really touching part. It’s interesting because modern women would say, ‘I would never forgive the Count for behaving this way,’ and of course part of me feels that way too, but there’s also part of me that thinks every marriage has a thousand stories. It’s really easy to say, ‘I would never forgive him,’ but the love they have for each other is strong.”
Kuster, an Illinois native who trained extensively in San Francisco, sees his character as someone caught between his own independence while trying to serve — and give a lesson to — his master and friend, the Count.
“The Count and I struck up a friendship (in ‘The Barber of Seville,’ the prequel to “Figaro”) and he asked me to come work for him,” Kuster said. “It’s easy money and I don’t have to do quite the same amount of work that I used to. I don’t have to hustle quite as hard until he takes an interest in my bride-to-be, and then I start to have problems.
“His mind is going a mile a minute. He’s always thinking. There’s always some angle he’s trying to play.”
Having done the role twice before, Kuster said he can hone in on the vocal demands of the role.
“My goal this time is focusing on saying something through the music, through various colors and articulation,” he said.
Vocally, Kuster’s main challenge will be singing two high “Fs” in “Se vuol ballare” (“If you want to dance”), an aria at the end of the first act, in which Figaro sings of his plans to fool the Count. The notes are a difficult jump for a baritone to reach.
“I’ve learned to laugh at myself if it’s not up to my snuff,” he said. “Most people are like, ‘It was great,’ and so I’m definitely the harshest critic for myself.”
Galvan, who was called into replace Edris on Saturday, played Susanna in a Florida production in 2019, winning praise for her “glimmering soprano,” and portraying the character as “sharp and savvy… offering perceptive, quick-witted asides as the wedding-day chaos unfolded.”
Musically, Mozart’s score is considered a high point in style, substance and beauty. Its energetic overture preludes the chaotic comedy of the play, appearing frequently as a standalone work at concert programs.
Susanna’s Act 4 aria, “Deh vieni, non-tardar” (“Come on, don’t be late”) is considered one of the great arias in opera.
“Her melody is gorgeous, but she duets with three woodwind instruments — a flute, an oboe and a bassoon — and they weave around each other and weave around her,” conductor Angus said.
“The music (in ‘Figaro’) is to die for,” he said. “It has fire, it has beauty, it has passion, elegance. It changes style.
“When it’s courtly stuff, we go into Baroque music, music that was 100 years older, and very formal and rigid. And then the Countess sings, and it’s high Romantic. It has a huge range of emotion and styles, and (Mozart) is almost perfect in everything. … I’ve done it many times, and I’m not the slightest bit tired of it.”