|Samarie Alicea as Susana and José Adán Perez as Figaro celebrating their marriage in Vid Guerrerio's version of Nozze di Figaro (photo by Ken Howard)
It has been a quarter century since our introduction to Mozart's Nozze di Figaro when Director Peter Sellars tackled it and presented it up at SUNY-Purchase-- in modern dress and taking place in what appeared to be Trump Tower and starring the Trump family. There were no titles and we hadn't a clue what was going on We were lost and just enjoyed Mozart's music.
In that quarter century, we have come to love Mozart's masterpiece above all others and have seen it probably 20 times, if not more. We have never welcomed the idea of updating it to contemporary times because the libretto is so rooted in the 18th c.
We were curious about the latest iteration, Figaro!, with a newly written libretto by Vid Guerrerio; our curiosity was satisfied last night at The Duke Theater on 42nd Street and we are pleased to report that, taken on its own terms, it makes for a delightful and insightful evening of theater. The choice of venue was perfect since the black box theater is just the right size and offers excellent sight lines and fine acoustics. The decision to not amplify the voices was the right one.
Pierre Beaumarchais' story line has been largely preserved, filled as it is with crazy characters and sit-com situations. Mozart's music has been largely preserved (although trimmed to a quick 2 1/2 hours) and valiantly played in a reduction for piano, string quartet and bass. Musical Director Raphael Fusco conducted from the piano.
What has been discarded is Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto. Mr. Guerrerio has distilled the essence of the story, added and subtracted a character here and there, and written a libretto based on contemporary speech and slang that the mostly young audience could readily understand. We could not have predicted how successful this would be.
In the 18th and 19th c., composer and librettist worked hand in hand to match the rhythm of the native language to the rhythm and phrasing of the music. Mr. Guerrerio was obliged to fit his libretto into music already composed. He deserves a great deal of credit for a task we would have deemed impossible. The cast deserves credit for good diction that made the libretto understandable for the most part, except for some lapses in rapid patter passages. Since the titles were very faint, this clarity was a distinct advantage.
Director Melissa Crespo kept up a rapid pace. During the overture, 18th c. characters in elaborate costumes began with a stately dance that was interrupted by the 21st c. hip-hop character L'il B-Man teaching them some modern moves. This served to carry us into Act I. The action has been moved to Beverly Hills and the emphasis has been placed on the awkward interactions between the working class and the leisure class, with all its attendant power struggles.
Here, the Count has been transformed into Paul Conti (performed by Luke Scott), owner of a large estate. His wife, the neglected Countess, now appears as Roxanne (performed by Raquel Suarez-Groen, looking way to young for the part), an over-the-hill actress concerned about aging and addicted to plastic surgery in an attempt to win back her straying husband.
Figaro (José Adán Pérez) is an illegal Mexican immigrant (or so we think until the "reveal") in Mr. Conti's employ. His bride is Susanna (Samarie Alicea), who works for the Conti's as well; in this case, it is Susana's debt that needs to be paid off, a debt to a Korean factory owner, Ms. Soon-Yi Nam (Sahoko Sato Timpone) , who advanced her funds to get across the border. This character replaces Marcellina as Susana's nemesis. Dr. Bartolo is now Babayan (Ethan Herschenfeld), an Armenian thug who is the Korean's accomplice.
Barbarina has been eliminated, and as substitute we have the Conti's punk daughter Barbara (Emma Grimsley) who has grown up alongside Li'l B-Man (Dwayne A. Washington), a hip-hop guy whose arias are not well received, filled with "bitch" and "ho" as they are. He will have to grow up to win her affection. A new character is his mother Donna (Lori Marabal) who doesn't want him to be sent off to military school.
Basilio has been transformed into Basel (Michael Kuhn), a tutor. The gardener Antonio is here called Atzuko (David Castillo).
There were no weaknesses in the cast but we were most taken with the performance of the lead couple.
Set design was simple--a large picture window overlooking palm trees with some simple furniture suggesting affluence. A swimming pool is created by suggestion and a garden (for the final act), by hedges. Lighting Design is by Gina Scherr and Costume Design is by Lux Haac who did particularly well with Roxanne and Susana's costume and wig exchange for the final act.
This all works out quite well in conveying the story of a boss trying to take advantage of his power over his employees. This makes the production relevant to our time without sacrificing entertainment value. One tends to forget that opera served an important role in shifting political values in its own time. Here, we find ourselves in a similar time of change, a time when we need the arts to support this change.
We are always in favor of presenting opera in ways to engage young audiences. By the laughter and applause we heard, a good time was had by all. In total agreement was the fellow reviewer who accompanied us and a young soprano we spotted in the audience who also loved the show.
Today, we listened to a thrilling broadcast of Nozze di Figaro (The Metropolitan Opera Saturday broadcast). We heard it in a new light.
(c) meche kroop