In the festival's opening production of Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, the larger stage allowed the still-simple settings to retreat a little behind the performers, supplementing what they do rather than challenging it. Scene changes were minimal, but the stage, designed by J.B. Wilson, established mood and fit director Albert Takazauckas' updated concept without losing sight of Mozart's sensibilities.
This Marriage of Figaro is set somewhere in the 1920s. Gowns are sleek, hair is tightly waved. Susannah wears a maid's black uniform, Figaro, formal black livery with green waistcoat that he trades for wedding frock. The Countess, arrow slim, wore a midnight blue sheath that expressed the loneliness of luxury lived without love.
It doesn't make its setting the whole point, as Peter Sellars did when he set Figaro in Trump Tower. This production doesn't try to explain the anachronisms of modern times and the custom of droit du seigneur, or the oddity of modernity and the reliance on horses for transport. Even costuming offers a range from Second Empire clothes for Bartolo, Paris bohemian for Cherubino to Filene's finery for Marcellina. It just enjoys its own jokes and lets the singers sing.
The cast seemed to have stepped up to meet the theater's potentialities. A vigorous and sonorous Figaro, an eloquent Countess, a pert and secure if sometimes shrill Susannah, and a Count with baritone color to match lifted that central quartet to a level of real interest. All sang the English text (by Jeremy Sams) with welcome clarity.
No surtitles were needed as the singers explained this complicated story. No detail went unexplained in a translation that seemed determined to get it all straight even at the expense of some dramatic force.
The level of the singing allowed the finales to become big vocal events. The finales, with their accumulating numbers of soloists, propelled the drama and gave the flourish needed to close the acts. Conductor Cal Stewart Kellogg shaped the second-act finale to invigorate its ingenious melodious development.
Mark McCrory sang the title role with stylistic care and exuberance. Alicia Berneche created a wily Susannah whose voice fit the ensembles and added an edgy quality that had its dramatic value. Jennifer Casey Cabot made the Countess a vulnerable figure. She sang expressively, sometimes taking alternative lines without losing the musical thread.
Kelly Anderson's baritone gave the Count prominence in a portrayal designed to make him mirror today's image of the amoral CEO.
The theater seemed to have enlarged the festival's horizons. The singing reflected that.
THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO Presented by the Opera Festival of New Jersey. Music by Wolfgang Mozart and libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte; directed by Albert Takazauckas; conducted by Cal Stewart Kellogg; settings by J.B. Wilson; costumes by Baker Smith; lighting by F. Mitchell Dana.
Figaro - Mark McCrory
Susanna - Alicia Berneche
Countess - Jennifer Casey Cabot
Count Almaviva - Kelly Anderson
Cherubino - Laura Tucker
Bartolo - Rod Nelman
Marcellina - Marion Pratnicki
Basilio - Jonathan Green
Additional performances: Friday and July 16 at 8 p.m. and Sunday and July 12 at 3 p.m., McCarter Theatre, Alexander St., Princeton. Tickets are $70-$22. Information: 609-683-8000.