Tuesday, May 8, 2007 | Something different happened at San Diego Opera’s opening night of “The Marriage of Figaro.” For the first time in San Diego Opera history, (outside of student night where students attend final dress rehearsals) the curtain remained up during a scene change, giving the audience an unprecedented vantage point as stagehands and crew moved hulking sets quickly and quietly. Just like the performers on stage are choreographed, the stage-crew members’ movements are also planned out carefully so they can efficiently change sets within the 20 minute intermission. As the curtain went down in order for performers to take the stage, the audience gave a round of applause.

With four acts and two 20-minute intermissions, “The Marriage of Figaro” clocks in with a substantial run-time. But from Mozart’s recognizable opening notes to the final scene, the opera keeps audiences interested with romantic and comedic twists and turns.

Picking up with central characters from “The Barber of Seville” (produced by SDO last season), “The Marriage of Figaro” begins delightfully with Figaro (Richard Bernstein) and Susanna (Isabel Bayrakdarian) preparing for their upcoming nuptials. Figaro sings as he counts aloud while measuring his room for the couple’s bed as Susanna implores him to pay attention to her bridal veil. It’s from this first scene that both Bernstein and Bayrakdarian display strong vocals and acting prowess. Figaro is Count Almaviva’s valet and his intended, Susanna, is the Countess’ maid. Bernstein captures Figaro’s crafty resourcefulness as he learns from Susanna that the Count has designs on her and hatches a plan to thwart the Count’s pursuits.

“Figaro’s” plot thickens as characters seek to avenge mistaken infidelities, unrequited love and more. Too long to try to explain here, it would also take away some of the absurdity of trying to follow along.

“Figaro” at times seems like a stage play because of its intricate plot, satire and humor. San Diego Opera’s production also uses a large number of stage props — decorations, chairs, love notes. This is not a stand-and-sing type of opera, which is what makes it so much fun.

And much of the entertainment comes from the unfaithful Count Almaviva, played with wicked cunning to the hilt by Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien, as he is led on a wild-goose chase by Figaro and friends. Kwiecien’s rich, supple voice maintains throughout the performance as does his intrigue, he’s so much fun to observe. As Rosina, now the lonely Countess Almaviva, soprano Pamela Armstrong perfectly counter-balances the Count with a sweet demeanor to match her voice. Sarah Castle navigates the trousers role (man’s part played by a woman) of Cherubino — the young page in love with all the local women, namely the Countess — with expertise. Castle tackles the role with its masculine gestures and vocals and convinces us that she’s Cherubino, the playboy page, while retaining her femininity. It’s lovely how she handles the role.

Swiss tenor Martin Zysset’s Don Basilio was hilarious. Looking like Ichabad Crane in the old Disney cartoon, he brought such mirth to the stage. He even took his final bows with a flourish. Other standouts include SDO regular James Scott Sikon’s town-drunk Antonio and Delores Ziegler’s Marcellina. As Figaro, bass-baritone Richard Bernstein shines. Making his SDO debut, he impressed with his arias — I didn’t want him to stop singing — and his stage presence. Canadian soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian was seriously a feast for the eyes and ears as Susanna. Possessing a strong, lush voice, she was also physically all over the stage, playing guitar and hiding in closets. Her timing had to be perfect, vocally and on entrance/exiting the stage. It was.

Timing and choreography are crucial to this production — from stage-crew to performers and musicians. As a rare treat, the audience was allowed a glimpse into what must all come together to make “The Marriage of Figaro” happen.

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