One of the chief pleasures of watching On Site Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro is the sheer proximity to the singers. This week the innovative company presents a lesser-known but nonetheless sparkling version of this famous comedy by Marco Portugal (1762-1830) in a classy, old townhouse at 632 Hudson Street. The house, which dates back to 1847, has been renovated as a magical, antique space complete with a cupola, its underside painted by a set designer to mimic a Renaissance mural adorned with flying cherubim. For the purposes of this opera, the house serves as the perfect setting for the singers, which brings me back to the question of proximity.
At a time when the Met is struggling to fill its cavernous 3,800 seat capacity, it has found success with its Live in HD broadcasts. These broadcasts have allowed audiences far and wide to get up close and personal with the singers. A similar effect is achieved in the flesh by On Site Opera with its small company of singers, in this case an exuberant cast led by Jesse Blumberg (Figaro) and Jeni Houser (Susannah). The vocal prowess of each singer is evident and never more than a few feet away. The musicians too—a small but effective chamber orchestra performing a re-orchestrated score by guitarist José Luis Iglésias and OSO’s Geoffrey McDonald—are in the room with everyone. The action of the opera unfolds inside several rooms of the house, obliging the audience, musicians and singers to move from place to place, which is both a novelty and a virtue. We interact with the space and with the characters.
Another observation: The singers cannot really afford to break character as they’re under the constant scrutiny of an attentive audience around which the action plays out. Live in HD makes similar demands. It’s an unusual experience for sure, and surely demands singers who can also act. Director and co-founder of On Site opera, Eric Einhorn has succeeded here in finding a company of great operatic thespians. In Act III, at the climax of the drama when the entire company sings from above, behind, and in front, the audience is immersed in the cross currents of the music; we can feel the physical vibrations. When it comes to the concept of surround sound, this is the real deal.
This week’s run of the show is sold out, due to the obvious limitations of space with its maximum 50-seat limit. But the notion of intimate chamber orchestra outside of the opera theatre continues to thrive. As its popularity continues to surge, the question of how such boutique productions will achieve economies of scale will have to be answered. But for now, it’s the intimacy that counts.