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Guest Critic: Chautauqua Opera Offers Vibrant and Timely Mozart Adaptation ‘¡Figaro! (90210)’

  • Jesús Vicente Murillo performs as Figaro during the Chautauqua Opera Company’s dress rehearsal of "¡Figaro! (90210)" on Wednesday, June 26, 2019, in Norton Hall. The opera opens June 28, and will continue through July 26. MHARI SHAW/STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER
Review by David Shengold-

Chautauqua Opera Company has been a key cultural feature of the Institution since 1929 — ranking it among the very oldest companies in North America. From the start, young singers performing here — both in leading roles and as Young Artists at various levels — have gone on to significant careers at the Metropolitan Opera House, in concert life and even in Hollywood. The lovely mezzo-soprano Gladys Swarthout, who took a featured role in 1929’s Faust, did all three. Plus, Chautauqua attendees, both new to opera and fans of it, have had ample chances to enjoy a varied banquet of the hybrid form’s great works.

¡Figaro! (90210), at Norton Hall, may challenge traditional opera-goers, but it may delight or at the very least intrigue them; it certainly would provide a lively introduction to the operatic universe for millennials and Generation Xers. Based on Mozart’s staggeringly lively and tuneful The Marriage of Figaro — by many estimates the most perfect comic opera ever written, this show conceived and adapted by Vid Guerrerio’s opened to acclaim in Los Angeles in 2015. Using cell phones, a framework of exploitation of Mexican immigrants and a salty mix of Spanglish, street language and contemporary references, the adapted libretto — in places brilliantly reimagined, in places rhythmically apt doggerel — addresses major questions about nationalism and identity. Remarkably, this adapted work was developed before the Donald Trump candidacy and administration’s all-out assault on Mexican immigration. Yet the issues portrayed — though treated with an admixture of humor befitting the source — could scarcely be more timely.

Chautauqua’s general and artistic director since the 2016 season, conductor Steven Osgood, has made some substantive changes in the program. The Norton Hall shows have longer runs — ¡Figaro! (90210) plays five times, with additional performances at 7 p.m. Sunday, and at 4 p.m. Friday, July 26. Also, seasons now have a conceptual unity. This summer’s operas are all associated with French author and polymath Pierre Beaumarchais, specifically his trilogy of “Figaro” plays, set in then-contemporary Spain and centering around a figure like the author himself: a sub-aristocratic (his surname’s “de” came to be added later, through considerable conniving), clever operator forced to rely on his own wits to contend with — and sometimes outwit — his social superiors. The trilogy includes The Barber of Seville, The Marriage of Figaro and The Guilty Mother.

When the second Beaumarchais play was still proscribed in France for its revolutionary sentiments, it obtained Viennese performance in Mozart’s version in 1786. This was largely due to the connections and libretto of the Veneto-born Lorenzo da Ponte, whose career outdid even Beaumarchais in variety and ingenuity: priest (despite his Jewish origins), teacher, diplomat, Viennese court poet, librettist, grocer (in Philadelphia), founder of Columbia University’s Italian Department and one of New York’s first operatic impresarios. An opera about da Ponte’s varied activity has appeared: Tarik O’Regan’s The Phoenix, unveiled this past season at Houston Grand Opera. Meanwhile, Beaumarchais himself plays a key role in John Corigliano’s 1991 The Ghosts of Versailles, which riffs on The Guilty Mother and comes to Chautauqua Saturday, July 27, in the Amphitheater.

Whether dealing with Beverly Hills or the original Andalusia, director Eric Einhorn has much experience with the Figaro characters, having directed for New York City’s On Site Opera many works inspired by the Beaumarchais trilogy, including Giovanni Paisiello’s initially popular Il Barbiere di Siviglia (later eclipsed by Rossini’s “Looney Toons”-cited classic, also in this summer’s repertory locally) and Darius Milhaud’s thorny La Mère Coupable. Einhorn certainly got his cast to explore the ambiguities and complexities of their identities and interrelations, even when Guerrerio’s update gets raunchy. (The “good guys,” the persecuted immigrants, themselves unleash racist epithets like “dragon lady” in relation to Marcellina, here “Ms. Soon Yi-Nam,” an exploitative trafficker and sweatshop boss). The spare design elements are all apt, with B.G. FitzGerald’s costumes particularly well observed. I regretted only Einhorn’s having the four conspirators against Susana and Figaro’s marriage indulge in the hoary provincial trope of “funny steps” in the brief dance rhythm section of Act II’s sublime final sextet.

The adaptation deploys a chamber group: the excellent pianist Emily Jarrell Urbanek and five accomplished string players (though perhaps due to humidity, the key violins sometimes veered a little sharp). Conductor Jorge Parodi led with verve and maintained good coordination with the stage — which was not always the case with the projected titles, a difficult task in this particular production.

As the undocumented — thus, at-risk — Susana, Laura León showed the sunny lyric soprano flow and ingratiating feisty persistence for the character. The occasional top note splayed slightly, but her performance — verbally keen in both Spanish and English — gave considerable pleasure. Jesús Vicente Murillo’s Figaro worked hard to please but seemed too affable; maybe his professions of being “street” and “dangerous” are meant to be self-deceptive? His bass didn’t always carry into the hall and got rather shouty on exposed top phrases. Matthew Cossack showed excellent diction, good legato and a smooth baritone as the lustful tycoon Paul Conti (also known as Count Almaviva). Guerrerio’s text smartly shows the character’s hypocritical sense of himself as a liberal, yielding easily to nativism (“Why can’t they speak English?”) when crossed.

The put-upon Countess is “Roxanne Conti,” an actress stalled in her career. Despite grotesque plastic surgery jokes (“Christ, I look like the Bride of the Mummy”) that contradict the spirit of Mozart’s music, the rich-toned Lauren Yokabaskas managed the famously testing entrance aria with dignity. Roxanne’s worries about being washed up at 40 seemed puzzling when the very handsome soprano looks to be at most 27, but perhaps one can ascribe that to the Los Angeles ethos that pervades Guerrerio’s revised text (lunch in Brentwood substituted for hunting). Be warned: “Dove sono” loses its recitative, repeat section and final trilled cadenza, and Susana and Roxanne’s beautiful “Letter Duet” — very wittily restyled as having the latter sext her own husband on the former’s cell phone — also drops its repeat. But the unconventional use made of Susana’s sublime final aria (no spoiler here) proved highly thematically relevant and moving.

The Count’s randy aristocratic page Cherubino, a female role traditionally, is here the 17-year-old wanna-be rapper Li’l B Man (also known as “Bernard”), a protégé of Conti’s who is getting on his nerves. If you know Cherubino’s two arias, it just grates to hear them in the tenor compass — not the fault of the show’s engaging performer, Sidney Ragland, who has an earnest, nimble music-theater style instrument, but the registration is just wrong. Scholars have sometimes posited that a third Cherubino aria may have been lost, so this edition reprises his love song (“Voi che sapete” in the original) to the teenage “Barbara,” here the Contis’ daughter than their gardener’s child. What initially is a typically misogynist rap becomes a sincere profession of admiration, a smart character arc for Li’l B Man — whom Barbara pegs as being “more bougie” even than her privileged self. Natalie Trumm acts the adolescent angst winningly, her nice dark lyric instrument sounding like a future Susana: exactly right. Another standout was dashing, sonorous bass Edwin Joseph as the sinister gangster Babayan (Dr. Bartolo), who proves to be Figaro’s father; Joseph seemed a good candidate for singing Figaro himself.

¡Figaro! (90210) will surely provoke discussions among those familiar with The Marriage of Figaro, and maybe desire among newbies to explore the original. Perhaps it’s important to recall that the “traditional” original has a wide history of being adapted and presented in different historical contexts. Former bad-boy director Peter Sellars Mozart’s trio of da Ponte-scripted works (the other two being Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte), all deal in some measure with class relations and their erotic complications. Sellars’ vision of a sleazy Manhattan millionaire abusing his servants was hailed as “the Trump Tower Figaro” years before Trump rose to national attention as the (putative) business wiz of “The Apprentice.” That version of The Marriage of Figaro, filmed in 1990, can be viewed on DVD. Two other appreciable versions to sample: Jean-Pierre Ponnelle’s sumptuous post-dubbed film led by Karl Böhm with an all-star cast and Claus Guth’s psychologically acute, visually updated — think Eurotrash — 2006 Salzburg staging under Nikolaus Harnoncourt with Anna Netrebko as Susanna. The Metropolitan’s current production by Richard Eyre, on view next season with Chautauqua Opera alumna Elizabeth Bishop as Marcellina, takes inspiration and aesthetic from Jean Renoir’s great pre-World War II film, “The Rules of The Game.”

A Philadelphia-based arts critic, David Shengold has written for Opera News, Opera (London), Opéra Magazine (Paris), Classical Voice North America and Time Out New York, among many venues. He has contributed program essays to the Metropolitan, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Covent Garden and the Glyndebourne and Wexford Festivals programs and lectured for NYCO, Glimmerglass Festival and Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre. He has taught on opera, literature and cultural history at Oberlin, Mount Holyoke and Williams Colleges.

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