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True ensemble shines in Sarasota Opera's delightfully sung "Figaro'

There will be many Mozart highlights before his 250th birthday celebration is done this year, but it's hard to imagine a more apt tribute to his genius than The Marriage of Figaro, which opened at the Sarasota Opera on Saturday night. It was delightfully sung and acted, and a pleasure to look at.

No doubt benefiting from Sarasota's longer-than-average rehearsal period, the cast is a true ensemble, with characters relating to each other in meaningful, individualistic ways, no matter how absurd and madcap the comedy becomes.

A sense of intimate humanity is established in the opening scene, as the valet Figaro, played by Bojan Knezevic, does his measuring of the bedroom, playfully supervised by his betrothed, the maid Susanna, played by Serena Benedetti. Right away, it is clear that these two are more than the sum of their parts. Individually, he is a perfectly serviceable bass-baritone, and she is the requisite bright-sounding soprano, but together, they have compelling, lovable chemistry at work.

Figaro has two of Mozart's greatest female characters - they push against the limits of 18th century society - and the relationship between Susanna and the Countess is thrillingly brought to life by Benedetti and Adrienne Danrich, whose voices blend beautifully.

Danrich's performance of the aria "Dove sono" is meltingly tender in its high, floating vulnerability, but a vein of iron also runs through it, reflecting the Countess' anger at her unfeeling husband. It's a classic diva moment, the expression of a strong woman imprisoned by her role.

One aspect of the opera shortchanged in Pat Diamond's staging is the daring political implications of Mozart's score and Lorenzo da Ponte's libretto. The struggle between Figaro and his master, the Count, can be seen as a metaphor for the French Revolution. But the production, which sticks closely to tradition, never finds a way to dramatize the class conflict beyond poking fun at it.

Constantinos Yiannoudes' Count is powerfully sung, but there's more buffoonery than menace to him (a lightweight impression not helped by an ill-fitting wig). Layna Chianakas, in the pants role of the page Cherubino, has a big voice, with a touch of huskiness that only enhances his blushing aria to women.

Jeffrey Tucker is elaborately, amusingly insincere as Bartolo, and his fast-paced aria "La vendetta" is a bravura comic turn. Rolando Sanz's Basilio is finely sung. Amanda Ingram portrays Marcellina, Bartolo's housekeeper who sets off the hilarious recognition scene when Figaro learns who his parents are.

Anthony Barrese conducted an orchestra of about 25 players, including a harpsichord that was amplified and sometimes sounded too loud. He may have taken the overture faster and less flexibly than is optimum, but Mozart's amazing score was well represented throughout the evening.

J. Michael Wingfield's scenic design is simple and uncluttered, with just enough colorful decoration - a bright red curtain here, a sentimental wall painting there - to give the castle some warmth.

Figaro takes stamina - it runs almost four hours, with two intermissions - and the energy level flagged in the final act in a blue-green garden. Figaro's famous aria on the trouble with women, his cuckold horn gestures wittily echoed by French horns, was a bit dull.

John Fleming can be reached at (727) 893-8716 or