A Delightful, Resourceful ‘Figaro’

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The New York Sun

Turning the corner of East Houston and the Bowery Saturday evening, I ran smack dab into a long line of prospective ticket buyers who appeared to be waiting to enter the Amato Opera for its current production of “The Marriage of Figaro.” Closer examination revealed they were actually attempting to attend the rock joint just next door, but I doubt seriously that any of them saw a better show. Amato’s “Figaro” turned out to be not only in good fun, but also — wonder of wonders — quite funny as well.

Now in its 59th season, Amato Opera is a throwback to New York’s roots. This Victorian dollhouse of a theater — actually in a basement — is remarkable for its miniature proportions, and the resident company, with a flair for the ingenious, is notable for utilizing every square inch of available space and every iota of valuable human resource: The usher dressed in 18th-century costume is both charming and also a member of the chorus. This is the opera equivalent to off-off-Broadway theater, in a neighborhood inextricably linked to the great Yiddish productions of the mid-19th through mid-20th centuries.

The tiny stage sits atop the small orchestra, Bayreuth style, so the strains of the instrumental have a certain faraway quality. The accompaniment is long on piano reduction (and in this particular case, harpsichord introduction) and thin but well-executed orchestration. Due to the proximity of the performers onstage, both direction and stage business are intricate, jewel-like constructions. This “Figaro” uses its claustrophobia to decided advantage. When Cherubino and Susanna hide from the Count in the boudoir of the Countess, the written hilarity is augmented by the almost ludicrous lack of space: Cherubino becomes a lumpy part of the sitting area of the one chair and eventually dives out of the window, as if following some immutable law of physics.


The Metropolitan Opera is making a lot of noise during this current off-season about its new production of “The Barber of Seville,” touting that some of its action may spill out onto the lip of the audience. At Amato, this is standard practice, as the characters often enter not from backstage, but rather from the stairway to the entrance of the theater itself. This night, Figaro led all of the women in the chorus through the entire crowd and they departed one by one, singing right into the ears of those in the aisle seats.The listener became part of the action. There is simply no fourth wall at the Amato Opera.

The troupe is part of a truly democratic repertory company. (Cast members come out and talk with the public during intermissions — try doing that uptown.) There are no less than six different Figaros for this present run of 12 performances. Tynan Davis as Cherubino provided the scene with the most satirical bite and the warmest sense of jocularity when, at the end of Act One, he was propelled into the army by the sardonic Nathan Hull’s Figaro, whose “non, piu andrai” — or whatever they would call it in this odd English version — proved, after an unfortunate false start, masterful. This was a terribly amusing scene, with the perky Mary Huhmann as Susanna marching along with a broom handle and a towel unfurled with flying colors, and oh that music!

All of the vocal performances were competent and some, like Ms. Huhmann’s, were excellent. But one player deserves special mention. Erik Kroncke’s Dr. Bartolo was full-voiced, richly resonant, and remarkably in character. His is a bass of astounding depth and warm timbre. Also, the comic timing of the Marcellina, Helen Van Tine, was impressive.


Although the overall experience at the Amato Opera Saturday evening was an enjoyable one, I do have a bone to pick with the troupe. Could Mozart have written a great opera to an English libretto? Of course, but this text is in Italian and Mozart geared all of his musical phrasings and constructions to encompass and adorn the particular lyrical poetry of Lorenzo Da Ponte. For the Amato, an Italian house after all, to bother with a translation — however atypical for the troupe — seemed positively heretical. It was as if they didn’t employ their fine orchestra for the overture and played a recording instead. Oh wait, that is exactly what they did.

Until October 15 (319 Bowery, at East 2nd Street, 212-228-8200).

The New York Sun

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