Saturday, June 18, 2016

Figaro Redivivus

Marcos Portugal’s The Marriage of Figaro (1799)
(La pazza giornata, ovvero Il matrimonio di Figaro)
On Site Opera
632 on Hudson
June 17, 2016

Cinque, dieci, ventisei: Figaro measures where it counts
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: The second installment of On Site Opera’s Figaro Project. After last year’s extraordinarily well executed unearthing of Paisiello’s Barbiere di Siviglia, this time around they’re dusting off an utterly neglected version of part two in the Beaumarchais trilogy set to music by Marco Portugal just some fifteen years after the Da Ponte-Mozart masterpiece based on the same material.

The venue of the wedding
Lei: The venue, 632 on Hudson is a unique hidden gem located in the transitional area between the western edge of the West Village and the Meatpacking district. A 19th century building, former sausage factory converted into eccentric exquisitely decorated villa. We happen to know the space and were intrigued by how it would get used as it is a triplex with a rooftop garden and the most delicious speakeasy bar in the basement. While they could have gone the whole immersive route á laSleep No More,” i.e. there’s always something happening and the public is free to roam and stop where it pleases (be it the main action or some minor detail), this production had the scenes set in three rooms of the venue (kitchen, living room and atrium), each time with rows of chairs for the 50 patrons occupying most of each used room so that the public sat in an orderly fashion and moved with each scene change. The idea seemed to be vaguely that the opera’s public played the part of the invitees to Susanna and Figaro’s wedding, which worked perfectly well in the actual wedding scene, where we even got sweet treats and a shot of Madeira! All in all Eric Einhorn’s “stage” direction was clever as he put the space of the villa to good use. It would have been amazing if they managed to use the planted rooftop garden for the final scene but I guess the logistics of it were too challenging.

Non più andrai farfallone amoroso (just kidding!)
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: As we arrived everyone was already in character. Cherubino was out on the sidewalk, grease flying while eating a piece of pizza decked out like a modern day millennial with a hoodie and his headphones around his neck. As we entered a very dapper Count Almaviva welcomed us on the stairs. Susanna was bickering with Bartolo about her voice lesson. Antonio was already drinking from a flask. And Figaro was running around doing busy butler-like stuff. Talk was already in the air of the day’s wedding festivities and it truly felt like stepping into somebody’s beautiful home in the middle of a busy day.

The layers are palpable like reflections of reflections
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lei: On Site Opera’s production of Portugal’s work went through a double layer of adaptations. First, the original Italian libretto was translated into English, with arias translated by Gilly French and Jeremy Gray and dialogue translated and adapted by Joan Holden. I always cringe when this happens since if something was composed to Italian words, it will always sound much worse in English no matter how clever and careful the translation. While I get the challenge of projecting supertitles when the opera is a movable feast around a mansion, still there can be ways to deal with it. As a compromise, one could do recitatifs in English and keep the arias in the original Italian, which could be awkward, yes, but not less than hearing an opera that seems quasi bel canto sung in English.

Cross-dressing the young soldier
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
In addition, the score was re-arranged for a band comprised of orchestral instruments (violin, cello, oboe, and clarinet) alongside instruments found in a traditional Portuguese fado ensemble (accordion, guitar, and the Portuguese guitarra). The idea seems to be to “honor the composer’s elegance of musical phrase and crisp comic timing while, at the same time, evoking his heritage.” Without having any recordings of the original, it’s hard to tell how much this arrangement kept of Portugal’s work and how much it departed from it. While I found the re-arranged music pleasant, it was not particularly impressive or memorable. And the special local flavors of Portuguese fado did not really come through (at least from where we were sitting).

Lui: I just don’t see the point in bastardizing an already bastardized copy of a brilliant original. The whole experience left me wondering to what extent what we heard tonight was the lackluster product of Marcos Portugal’s second-rate copy or the result of the unnecessary dumbing of it down into a working English translation. The Petrarchan nuances of Cherubino’s paradoxical icy fire lovesickness was gone. On whom was this classical trope lost: Portugal’s first-rate librettist? Or the translators of the present production? It is unlikely that it was Gaetano Rossi, a librettist who collaborated with Rossini and Donizetti in works such as Semiramide and Linda di Chamonix.

Figaro owned his environment
Photo credit: Rebecca Fey
Lei: What the singers had to perform, they performed beautifully. It’s just unfortunate they didn’t have more to work with. The acting was exceptional and the singing was highly competent. The level of engagement and professionalism of these artists was impressive, particularly as they had to basically learn their roles from scratch and with no recordings. The English in and of itself, though not ideal, in their capable hands it was much more pleasant than expected.

Jesse Blumberg’s Figaro was playful and present. He had good comic timing and composure and never took it over the top. He was a booming baritone whose mood ran the gamut from the chuckle to the bellyful laugh.

Almaviva's acting chops on display
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: Tenor David Blalock was the only cast member who was back for more, reprising his role as Count Almaviva, this time acting as the lone umbilical cord character in this sequel. Everyone else was new to the trilogy. Blalock’s acting was so impressive that I initially thought he was another singer, maybe his brother (David Blalock, also a tenor) as in last year’s Barbiere he was youthful, goofy and lovey dovey. Here Blalock looked more mature, sure of himself, entitled and slightly threatening, really a sensational actor. His imposing brow and commanding gaze made him an intimidating padrone. Unlike in the Mozart, where the Count becomes a baritone after having been written as a tenor in both Paisiello’s and Rossini’s take on part one in the trilogy, Portugal keeps him as a tenor. Blalock grounds his bright instrument in a deeper sound. Bright on the edges, but brash and manly when he has to be.

Lei: It seems like Portugal wrote the most challenging and showy arias for Susanna as he had a particularly exceptional soprano available for the role. Jeni Houser was indeed the singer with the flashiest arias, from quick fire coloratura in Act I to more ecstatic and dramatic contemplation in Act III (the equivalent of Mozart’s “Deh vieni, non tardar”). Houser, who has a bright lively instrument, portrayed Susanna with fiery petulant flair and was particularly impressive in the ensembles that she helped carry and sustain.

Susanna holds forth in disguise
Photo credit: Michelle Agins / New York Times
Lui: Soprano Melissa Wimbish as Cherubino was perhaps the most effervescent of all. She was a pleasure to watch as she flitted about leaving a mess in her wake as she fell in love with anything of the feminine sex with a pulse. With her tuft of curly hair and her big eyes taking the world in around her, Wimbish charismatically embodied everybody’s favorite pageboy with joyful pizzazz. Her soprano also moved effortlessly from the spoken dialogue to passages of extreme lyrical beauty.

Cherubino as a young millennial with his bride
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lei: Though her initial “Porgi amor” aria had been replaced with something more along the lines of her later “Dove sono i bei momenti” piece, Portugal’s countess is just as lovelorn and lonely as her Mozartian counterpart. Soprano Camille Zamora sang her with great melancholic feeling and embodied beautifully the Countess’ elegance and heartache.

Maestro Geoffrey McDonald used his 7-piece ensemble sparingly. His approach seemed to be that of using the instrumentalists as a form of support for the singers. The musicians never overwhelmed the vocalists. In fact, it hardly ever even called explicit attention to itself. Despite the exotic local southern Spanish flair of some of the instrumentation, these little touches and colors never distracted from the main flow of the action.

Situation comedy though never slapstick
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: Maybe because of the English translation, but this often came across like the sit-com version of a great opera. The whole thing followed so closely the plot points of the Da Ponte-Mozart masterpiece (and their shared source material in Beaumarchais) that it left you longing for the superior version. On our way home, rather than singing what we heard, we found ourselves singing the timeless melodies, duets and arias that were missing. The ones that make Mozart the genius he is. The story was virtually the same from moment to moment with really just a few inversions and cuts. So when it came to classic moments in the Mozart score, I found myself rising expectantly to see what Portugal would do for example with Figaro’s big misogynist aria at the end of what was here Act III. But nothing of the sort came about. Either On Site’s adaptation gave us a politically correct version or else Portugal censored himself. It is such an unknown work that I can’t say with any certainty.

The same went for Almaviva’s classic class warfare aria. When it came time for him to switch gears into suspecting that his servants might be putting one over on him, I was gearing up to hear something along the lines of the fiery righteous aristocratic rage that comes out in “Vedrò mentr’io sospiro / felice un servo mio,” but nothing of the sort came about. All of the class rage had been cut out.

The huge Act II finale
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
There was just one exception to this general diminishing of Mozart as a model. The big Act II finale was an octet here, upping the ante on Mozart’s famous finale. I have to hand it to everyone involved in this scene from the musicians to all eight of the singers. This was a very impressive piece of layered operatic theater. It amounted to one moment in which the copy matched its illustrious forebears.

Lei: I just don’t get the point of this little exercise. Why not just do the Mozart in the original language but in a chamber site specific setting and call it a day. It would still be novel and unique and I guarantee the public would be mesmerized. It is a masterpiece after all and not without good reason. Portugal’s opera, again unclear whether as originally written or as adapted for this show, sadly just did not seem that good. While I totally get the academic interest of unearthing forgotten jewels from the past, Portugal’s opera is just not a jewel and it’s way too close to one of the greatest operas of all times to come out alive. It is unfortunate because On Site Opera clearly has access to plenty of resources and excellent artists that could all be put to better use.

Opera in your lap
Photo credit: Pavel Antonov
Lui: This truly was opera in your lap though. It was noble in its intention and mostly great in its execution but ultimately a wasted effort. Sorry to say. We caught the final performance of the run and the second one of the night, which did not allow for time to roam around the venue before the beginning of the show, unfortunately. The prospect seemed promising when we arrived. Everyone had a big smile plastered on their faces as the 6:30 show filed out onto the twilit West Village street. Something must have been working at least for them.

The whole experience tonight gave me a greater appreciation of the truly noble and noteworthy effort of the Vertical Player Repertory’s highly laudable excavation in their initiative to unearth Pacini’s all but forgotten bel canto masterpiece Malvina di Scozia. Now that was a worthwhile venture into the dusty annals of oblivion. To bring a discovery like Malvina to light is truly something to get excited about. While Portugal’s Marriage of Figaro was indeed good fun and the cast was truly top notch, this little excursion with On Site Opera left much to be desired. Nevertheless, we’re optimistic about the third installment in the Beaumarchais trilogy slated for production sometime next year.

Lei & Lui

Art deco lounge doubles as Rosina's boudoir
Photo credit: 632 on Hudson
Propitious stars over the nuptial couple
Photo credit: 632 on Hudson

No comments:

Post a Comment