9 September 2007: Beaumarchais, Figaro

Théâtre de la Jeune Lune, at American Repertory Theatre, Cambridge. Figaro, an “opera-play.” Conception by Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand, text by Epp. Music adapted by Bradley Greenwald. Directed by Serrand. Based on plays by Beaumarchais and the opera by Mozart

Notwithstanding all the marks of post-modern treatment and style that characterize this work, it is profoundly and lovingly conservative. Mozart’s opera is a truly gorgeous creation — sung here with all the spot-on vigor and gusto and sheer beauty that the score requires — and it comes freshly alive in this almost Beckettian revival of it, from the immense distance of a world disintegrating into chaos. In these seemingly doomed circumstances, in which the former Count Almaviva discovers he is not the father of his son and takes his life, as the French Revolution rages around him, the crashing shells and general frenzy become a figure for our own latter-day chaotic world, into which the timeless loveliness of Mozart’s sublime creation persists, dominates, and (perhaps) redeems us. Vary­ing in tone from being a rambunctious romp to a sobering, pathos-laden drama of deceit and loss, Epp and Sarrand’s own creation emerges as a brilliant way to reconceive and freshly understand the intrigue-filled world of eighteenth-century Italy in which Mozart has set his opera.

Mr. Almaviva (his title taken from him by the Revolution) with his former barber (“I was never your servant,” he says) Figaro, whom he now calls “Fig”, spends most of his days hiding in a closet with a tiny square porthole through which he communicates, as Fig peels a few potatoes sent to him from Virginia by Susanna, who has been sent there for reasons of safety. The two live in an aban­don­ed house across the street from the Bastille, in a kind of morbid codepend­ency. From this bleak, ruined vantage point they reexperience their former lives, as encapsulated in Mozart’s opera. And so we have a wonderful kind of doubling over of the revival of the opera, both inside the fictional experience of Epp and Sarrand’s play and, theatrically, right there on stage, and in the reality of our own here-and-now.

Add to this the wonderfully physical acting style of the Jeune Lune company, which has extended itself to the beautifully trained singers inhabiting the roles of the characters in Mozart’s opera, and the resulting ensemble is perfect for the pur­pose. A prominent part of this generic combination of play and opera is the addition of a third generic component, video. One camera is positioned on the apron at stage left, outside the black wall of the proscenium, sharing that space with the musical ensemble of a string quartet and keyboard. A second camera is stationed out of sight on the backstage side of the more downstage of two door­ways. And there must be a video director monitoring what these cameras pick up and selecting images that are then projected onto a large screen at the upstage limit of the set. (On this same screen are projected images, sometimes moving, sometimes still, of Parisian interiors and exteriors.) The result is that we are given simultaneously alternative views, often in revealing close-up, of the characters as they speak or, more likely, as they sing. The idea of doing this is apparently Sar­rand’s, used also in the earlier Jeune Lune play Amerika, according to Gideon Lester’s article about the play-opera in the current issue of the ART newsletter. It adds an important dimension of experience to our response to the production, without being in the least gimmicky.

This was the second performance of Figaro here at the ART — it opened on Friday, 7 September, and is playing in repertory with the other Jeune Lune play-opera, or opera-play, Don Juan ­Giovanni, which I have not seen and may have to miss. Lester says he saw the Figaro at the J. L.’s home base in Minneapolis and was deeply moved by it. The audience tonight, partly full of the ART’s advisory board, who were attending a reception before curtain time, was full, and greatly appreciative of this combined effort.

And it will have the effect of sending me in search of a good video of the Mozart opera itself. Out of this somewhat trendy but nonetheless genuine End­game-like revisiting of Beaumarchais and Mozart has come an irresistible desire on my part to experience the opera itself, whole and undivided.


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An American Playgoer at Home by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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