If you never heard Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," there is no better
introduction than at Berkeley Rep's "Figaro." On the other hand, at the
risk of raising some judicious eyebrows: after a lifetime of listening
to "Marriage," some of the bloom is off of this obviously great music
for me. Habit is a great deadener, alas.
At the Saturday matine of the Berkeley Rep's West Coast premiere
production of "Figaro," however, the music of the opera - performed
gloriously by singers without big names - came through once again fresh
and glorious, speaking to the heart, misting the eye with its affecting
insights into human nature, its yearning beauty. The Dominique
Serrand-Steven Epp "Figaro" is a theatrical coup, a dazzling production,
and - above all - an enterprise honoring Mozart as few "proper opera"
Based on Beaumarchais' little-known third play of the Figaro trilogy -
the 1792 "Le Mere Coupable" ("The Guilty Mother") - this Theatre de la
Jeune Lune-originated musical play takes the 1775 "Barber of Seville"
and 1784 "Marriage of Figaro" into the future of the two plays' characters.
With "thanks and apologies to Beaumarchais, Mozart, and da Ponte,"
"Figaro" opens in the French Revolution's Reign-of-Terror phase.
The old Count (Serrand) is hidden from the enrages (the Cultural
Revolution crowd of those days) by the old Figaro (Epp), called "Fig"
and roundly abused by the delightfully dissolute Almaviva. In the first
act's dizzying, spectacular, funny whirlwind, the Beaumarchais trilogy
is recounted and updated: the Countess (long estranged from the Count)
is in the country, with her son (and wait until you hear that story!).
Susanna went to live in America, she is now in charge of the linen at
the Jefferson household in Virginia.
Even as in Sondheim's "Follies," old and young selves of characters
meet, interact or speak and sing over each other's heads. The multimedia
aspect of "Figaro" is wonderfully well handled, with live video close-ups
of the actors and singers providing the "sets," while enhancing our
understanding. Without the close-ups, it would be impossible to see and
appreciate fully the tremendous acting prowess in the eyes and faces of
Serrand, Epp, Jennifer Baldwin Peden (the most beautiful Countess since
the young days of Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), Momoko Tanno (Susanna), Christina
Baldwin (Cherubino), Bryan Boyce (young Figaro) and big-voiced, show-stopper
Bradley Greenwald (young Count), and all the other lively ghosts from
the days of the Figaro's wedding.
The second act of the nearly three-hour-long production slows down,
almost too much so, with more pauses, less manic action - but then some
of Mozart's most beautiful music is interpolated in context, leaving new
fans and spoiled veterans in the same exalted place of bliss.
Live accompaniment is provided in a superb fashion by music director and
pianist Barbara Brooks and the 7th Avenue String Quartet (Justin Mackewich,
Sarah Jo Zaharako, Katrina Weeks, and Alex Kelly). At the end, interrupting
the standing ovation, Serrand led the entire cast off the stage, greeting
the audience at the exit, in an ultimate, timely, and most effective
breaking of the fourth wall.
It's been a historical puzzle that while the first two Beaumarchais plays
inspired operas by Paisiello, Mozart, Salieri, Rossini, Massenet, Milhaud,
Corigliano, and others, "Le Mere Coupable" did bupkis. Until now.
"Figaro" is the definitive musical version, using the best possible
material in the whole wide world.
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