Every once in a while there’s an uplifting work of art that makes one feel glad to be alive. L.A. Opera’s exuberant production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s 1786 The Marriage of Figaro (Le Nozze di Figaro), conducted by none other than Placido Domingo himself, is one of those rare artistic experiences that enable audiences to walk on air and be grateful to be living, if only so they can experience such a rapturous, joyous vision and affirmation of life.
L.A. theatergoers are currently encountering Theatre West’s revival of Clifford Odets’ 1935 classic proletarian drama Waiting For Lefty, while the Actors’ Gang is presenting Tim Robbin’s people’s history of Jamestown, Break the Whip. But I humbly submit that by making the servants Figaro (bass-baritone Daniel Okulitch) and his betrothed Susanna (sopranos Marlis Petersen through Oct. 3, Rebekah Camm Oct. 6-17) Figaro’s lead characters, and their struggle with Count Almaviva (baritone Bo Skovhus) a focus of the opera, Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte created a sort of proletarian, people’s history of Europe as it neared the French Revolution. Indeed, French playwright Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais’ original play, which Figaro is derived from, was banned in Vienna because it satirized the European aristocracy. (The Hapsburgs were not exactly known for their devotion to free speech or sense of humor.)
This is the second time since December that L.A. Opera has produced a work featuring Figaro. Italian composer Gioachino Rossini’s 1816 The Barber of Seville, libretto by Cesare Sterbini, was also derived from Beaumarchais’ trilogy of plays featuring that sly, skilled working class hero, who lives by his wits and labor (this is somewhat subverted in Mozart’s opera buffa, although the nobleman remains the buffoon).
Nowadays much is made of a couple’s wedding night, but The Marriage of Figaro is about what is probably opera’s busiest wedding day, as Figaro and Susanna prepare to marry. Among other things, the newlyweds-to-be must contend with an old feudal law that allowed the lord to deflower plebian brides before they consummated their nuptials with their commoner husbands. (Common indeed: The 18th century was not big on sexual harassment – or other human rights — laws protecting employees in the workplace.) So the ever resourceful Figaro and Susanna must scheme to thwart their “master’s” marital rape of the bewitching bride-to-be, whom Count Almaviva most definitely has the hots for. At the same time, the aristocrat’s scorned, forlorn wife, Countess Almaviva (soprano Martina Serafin), seeks to reign in her adulterous husband’s serial philandering.
Amidst must first act breast groping, there’s more trickery, twists, turns and trysts than a Woody Allen movie in Mozart’s rollicking romp. Toss into this potent mix the cross-dressing male Cherubino (beguilingly portrayed by a female, mezzo-soprano Renata Pkupic), his adolescent hormones roaring beyond his control, as the randy teen lusts for a variety of women, including Barbarina (portrayed at the premiere by Barbarella-like soprano Valentina Fleer; soprano Janai Brugger-Orman assumes the role Oct. 6-17). Cherubino, who dresses up in women’s clothing, becomes one soldier who’d definitely rather make love, not war. To further complicate matters, Marcellina (played by Ronnita Nicole Miller through Oct. 3, and from Oct. 6-17 by mezzo-soprano Tracy Cox) has her own designs on Figaro, and it is one of the opera’s biggest surprises when we find out why she really loves Figaro. (By the way, Miller, Brugger-Orman and Fleer are alumna members of L.A. Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program.)
Shake, do not stir, this coquettish concoction and you get a frothy elixir of the musical gods. Ambrosia that could soothe seething souls, with Mozart’s immortal music rousingly conducted by Placido Domingo, who fluidly moves as one with the music. Domingo seems prominently displayed on a raised platform underneath a spotlight in the orchestra pit, as L.A. Opera gets its money’s worth out of its wandering, world famous General Director. How appropriate for Domingo to conduct Figaro – which Mozart himself conducted at its 1786 world premiere in Vienna. (Israel Gursky takes the baton Oct. 14 and 17.)
Ian Judge deftly directs the players, but scenery designer Tim Goodchild’s humdrum sets only come alive in the gorgeous garden scene, with its full moon (although I don’t quite understand how chandeliers could be suspended outdoors – I guess I’ll just have to willingly suspend my disbelief a la Samuel Coleridge). Sets are often characters unto themselves in many L.A. Opera productions — such as Tosca’s prison, Carmen’s plaza and The Fly’s mad scientist’s lair – but until Figaro’s grand finale, they are decidedly run-of-the-mill. Costume designer Deirdre Clancy’s duds have 18th century flair, although Figaro’s contemporary wedding outfit is a dud. This production also unnecessarily inserts other modern references, such as telephones and flashlights, into the 18th century milieu, which only serve to distract from what is otherwise a grand period piece.
And Mozart’s whimsical opera, wherein love conquers all, and is the be all and end all – is arguably the grandest illusion of all. So why shatter the fantasy? The rest of real life does that for us regularly enough. (It’s easy to see why the composer, alas, was not long for this world.) But these are mere quibbles: To enjoy the most delightful, whimsical, charming opera I’ve ever seen, treat yourself to a well-deserved break and get thee to L.A Opera for Wolfy’s eternally joyful The Marriage of Figaro. A good time is guaranteed to all.
The Marriage of Figaro is being performed at L.A. Opera at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, 135 N. Grand Ave., on Thursday Sept. 30, Wednesday Oct. 6 and Thursday Oct. 14 at 7:30 p.m.; Sundays Oct. 3, Oct. 10 and Oct. 17 at 2:00 p.m. For more info: (213)972-8001; www.laopera.com.
Ed Rampell is an L.A.-based film historian, critic, author, freelance writer and wag who wrote the Oct. 26, 2001 Tucson Weekly cover story“Tinseltown’s Tombstone, A Look at the Real and Reel Wyatt Earp.”