Not even two years old by students and alumni of Peabody Conservatory, the Figaro Project is one of several new opera companies that have sprouted up around the country, and it presented itself last night not only as an impressive collective of talented performers, but as a strong advocate for newly-written opera. Brought to life in the University of Baltimore’s Performing Arts Theatre (and for the low-low price of “free”!), thirteen singers and a small pit of 1-3 players provided the spark for three one-act operas by local composers Paul Matthews, Douglas Buchanan, and Joshua Bornfield.

Each work stood apart from the others in its own way and presented both highlights and challenges to the fledgling troupe. Matthews’ Piecing It Apart successfully attempted to incorporate flashbacks into the mix as two detectives interrogate a farmer for the possible killing of his mistress. Combining the patina, unreliable narrator, and overlapping plot lines of modern-day puzzle films, the work had some wonderful musical moments as the relationship between the suspected killer and his hapless victim emerges throughout the story. Lux et Tenebrae by Douglas Buchanan spiraled off in a completely different direction, forging together a mythological story of how shadows came to be through the adventures of a Child soon after the universe was formed. Utilizing the largest cast and pit of the evening, Lux showed both the advantages & disadvantages of such a menagerie – the spectacle and depth of the story was provided by the talented cast but one felt the need of a scorecard at points to figure out who was who (the stylized costumes definitely helped here), and the increased orchestration made balancing the singers in the reverberant hall a challenge.  The final work on the program, Strong Like Bull by Joshua Bornfield was the highlight of the evening for several reasons. The story, loosely based around the tenuous political upheaval in Russia in the years following the deposition of the Czar, seemed one part Kubrick, one part Marx Brothers and admirably showcased each cast member’s talents. Bornfield demonstrates that there is still room for humor in opera today, and one is optimistic that this work brought to life by other companies.

As mentioned, the casts of all three operas were quite good; standouts included Caitlin Vincent in Piecing It Apart, Nola Richardson in Lux et Tenebrae, and the quartet cast of Strong Like Bull – Jessica Abel (and her hand puppets), Jessica Hanel Satava, the scenery-chewing Nathan Wyatt, and Peter Drackley (whose ubiquitous cigar should have been credited as a member of the cast). Music Director Younggun Kim and conductor Jim Stopher performed an immense amount of material throughout the evening to great effect.

There’s one more showing of these operas tonight at 7:30 in the University of Baltimore’s Performing Arts Theatre – if you’re in the area you’d be hard-pressed to find a better way to spend an evening.