Monday, April 13, 2015

Figaro qua, Figaro là…

•Charles Morey: Figaro.
  adapted from Le mariage de Figaro,
  by Pierre de Beaumarchais.
  Directed by Michael Michetti.
  Seen at A Noise Within, Pasadena, California,
  10 April 2015

•Mozart and da Ponte: Le nozze di Figaro.
  Conducted by James Conlon; directed by Ian Judge.
  Seen at Los Angeles Opera, 9 April 2015
Eastside Road, April 13, 2015—
LAST WEEK ENDED in a flurry of theater: two versions of the great Marriage of Figaro; a production of Julius Caesar; a production of The Threepenny Opera. Let's begin with Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, 1732-1799, whose article in Wikipedia introduces him as "a French playwright, watchmaker, inventor, musician, diplomat, fugitive, spy, publisher, horticulturalist, arms dealer, satirist, financier, and revolutionary (both French and American)." I take the following three paragraphs from the Wikipedia entry:

Born simply Pierre-Augustin Caron, the son of a watchmaker from the provinces who had apparently settled in Paris, he took early to music, but was apprenticed as a matter of course to his father. At twenty-one he invented a refinement of the escapement mechanism which greatly improved the reliability and lessened the size of watches, which brought him to the notice of the king. Two years later he married a widow with money and land, and took the name "Beaumarchais," but she died with a year, and he fell into debt.

His fortunes turned quickly, though, and he became music=teacher to the four daughters of Louis XV. (He taught them harp.) He met an older entrepreneur, Joseph Paris Duverney, who helped him in a number of business ventures, by which he became rich and gained further access to French nobility.

In 1764 Beaumarchais spent ten months in Madrid, helping a sister who had married there. His bid for consulship to Spain was rejected, and he turned increasingly to business ventures while beginning to experiment with writing plays; his first drama, Eugénie, premiered at the Comédie Française in 1767.

Beaumarchais is best known nowadays, and especially outside of France, through the first two plays of his trilogy centered on recurring characters at court of Count Almaviva, grand corrégidor of Andalusia: Le Barbier de Séville, premiered in 1775; Le Mariage de Figaro (1784), and La Mère coupable (1792).

Anyone who knows The Barber of Seville (Rossini and Sterbini) and The Marriage of Figaro (Mozart and da Ponte), the great operatic settings of the first two plays, will recognize autobiographical elements in the plots. Music teacher to nobility; factotum from the lower orders; lawsuits (Beaumarchais was engaged in several); marriages (ditto)… it has even been suggested that Figaro's name is a thin disguise of the playwright's, who was fils Caron, son of Caron.

Figaro is of course a memorable character, thanks primarily to Lorenzo da Ponte's adaptation of the second play. Da Ponte himself was a Beaumarchais-like character; the decade 1776-1786 was a heady time; the intersection of literature, populism, entrepreneurship, greatly increased travel and the sophistication that naturally follows, and of course the age of revolution all participate in the brilliance and edginess of Figaro's character. (And yet my first memory of Figaro is of the black cat hungrily gazing at the goldfish Cleo in the 1940 Disney adaptation of Pinocchio.)

ALL THAT SAID, what was to be learned from last week's exposure to The Marriage of Figaro in both its original theatrical form and da Ponte and Mozart's operatic setting? First, of course, the power of music (and particularly of Mozart's); second, the brilliance of da Ponte's libretto; but a close third, the surprising depth and richness of the play. A quick disclaimer: I don't know the original; I've never seen the play before in any language, and I haven't read the original. (Yet: the entire text is readily available at Wikisource.)

As adapted by Charles Morey and directed, wonderfully, by Michael Michetti, Figaro is completely within the tradition ranging from Commedia dell'arte through 19th-century French farce to the Marx Brothers and even, as the actors pointed out in a post-performance talkback with the audience, to such standard television fare as Seinfeld. I suspect Morey studied da Ponte carefully and did a similar job of streamlining. A couple of minor characters have been dropped (Grippe-soleil, a young shepherd; Pédrille, a message-boy to the count; and with them, probably a sub-plot or two, not to be missed in this already complicated comedy.

Now that I look at the pivotal resolution, which Mozart and da Ponte render so magnificent — the Count's plea for perdono, Contessa — I wonder at the changes Beaumarchais may have made in the original text to get it past Louis XV, who at first banned its public performance. The plot hinges on unmasking the Count's sexual immorality and exploitation; he finally has to beg forgiveness of the Countess, who of course grants it. Clearly a sitting king will not countenance such a plot, and in the text as we have it the moment is underplayed. Two years after the Paris premiere, da Ponte and Mozart elevate that moment to something exalted, transcendent. Even so, the play is clearly political, subversive, revolutionary.

Michetti's direction and the Noise Within cast conveyed all the urgency, the sharp political satire, and the philosophical complexity of the play in a fast, sometimes zany, often touching performance. In the title role, Jeremy Guskin was perfectly brilliant, easily switching from broad comedy to darker, intelligent brooding — the great monologue in Act Five, only a little revised in Morey's adaptation, was marvelous. Angela Sauer's Suzanne was up to that challenge; and if Count Almaviva is costumed ludicrously and made foolish and foppish, Andrew Ross Wynn made the concept work. Elyse Mirto was an affecting Countess, and Will Bradley was utterly persuasive as Cherubin in spite of his tall, lean stature. The rest of the cast were remarkably even, flexible, and resourceful: every nuance of the play seemed perfectly interpreted; there was never a slow moment; even the complex second-act ensemble, with characters hiding in closets and jumping out of windows, worked like, well, clockwork. The production continues in repertory through May 10, 2015, and it should certainly not be missed.

Alas, the same could not be said of Los Angeles Opera's production, or its young cast's performance, of the opera. Seen from too far away, in too big an opera house, in a musical performance that was too weighty and strove too earnestly for greatness, this Nozze di Figaro was laborious. There were some pretty voices and some successful portrayals, but I left with the feeling I'd seen an awkward attempt by a provincial company.
•William Shakespeare: Julius Caesar.
  Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott

•Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill: The Threepenny Opera.
  Directed by Julia Rodriguez-Elliott and Geoff Elliott
  Both seen at A Noise Within, Pasadena, California,
  11 April 2015
FOR YEARS NOW we have subscribed to the plays performed by A Noise Within, the repertory theater company based formerly in Glendale and now in its own building in Pasadena. Founded by actors who had been with ACT in San Francisco, the company mounts seven productions each year: three plays in the fall, three in the spring, and a Christmas special.

The repertory has always included Shakespeare, usually two plays each season, set next to American classics by such playwrights as William Inge and Tennessee Williams, frequent trips into the French repertory, and occasional looks at the classic avant-garde (Ionesco; Beckett). The schedule works out in such a way that we can nearly always see all three plays of each half-season within three or four days, making it a convenient run-out from home. Every year we make this trip twice, just as every year we travel once or twice to Ashland for performances by the much wealthier Oregon Shakespeare Festival. I won't engage in comparisons here.

This year's Noise Within season had as its theme "Revolution": last November we saw three plays revolutionary in their time for style: Shakespeare'sThe Tempest , Oscar Wilde'sThe Importance of Being Earnest , and August Strindberg's The Dance of Death. Last week's plays were not only revolutionary in the style of their concept and expression, they were in fact about revolution. In addition to Figaro they were Julius Caesar and The Threepenny Opera , both shows directed by the same team and performed in the same stage design — and seen, as it turned out, on the same day.

This is the kind of intellectual and theatrical exercise A Noise Within often attempts, nearly as often successfully. The pairing of these two very different vehicles underscored profundities which are latent in the scripts and which should be obvious to any reader or onlooker, whatever the success of the production; in this event, the result was really quite powerful, really moving. I thought Threepenny suffered a bit from slow tempi, which tended to hamper the drive and bite of the play; but that flaw could be forgiven in the face of the detail, the passion, and the total authenticity of the performances.

Both plays were staged in a relatively unspecified early-twentieth-century setting, the stage occupied by stark industrial scaffolding. Both brought the audience into the piece: in Julius Caesar one felt included within the Roman rabble irresolute between Caesar's attackers and his defenders; in Threepenny one was directly confronted by the cast, intent on alienating its audience with fine Brechtian nastiness.

I thought it appropriate that we were seeing these productions in the week of Judith Malina's death — The Living Theatre, which she and Julian Beck co-founded in the 1950s to such and artistic triumph and controversy, has surely influenced these directors in these productions; and Malina would have appreciated the result, I think, though perhaps with a sardonic observation that it was high time the commercial theater fall into line.

That Living Theatre connection came to me at the beginning of The Threepenny Opera, which began indistinctly, with the cast roaming through the audience, moodily repeating isolated lines of dialogue from various moments in the play. We were eased into the play, you might say, albeit in quite an uneasy manner; there was a deliciously menacing quality to the moment, and though this was the evening performance that moment instantly threw the afternoon's Julius Caesar into yet another layer of ironic meaning.

A Noise Within has a fine website from which you'll get notes on the productions and cast lists; I won't attempt a detailed review here. I do have to mention, though, the strong Brutus of Robertson Dean; the eloquent Mark Antony of Rafael Goldstein; the engaging, complex clarity of Freddy Douglas's Cassius; which requires that I also mention Patrick O'Connell's successfully ambivalent, tragically aging Caesar. Other roles were as well conceived and performed.

In Threepenny we were impressed, my companion and I, by the quality of the singing. As Polly Peachum and Lucy Brown, Marisa Duchowny and Maegan McConnell had clear, accurate, expressive, well-focussed soprano voices; Andrew Ableson was a pleasantly reedy, sardonic, nasty Mâcheath; Stasha Surdyke captured Jenny Diver's complexity well. Geoff Elliott makes an all too credible Peachum, and Deborah Strang was quite marvelous as his Mrs., drawing the first row of the audience into the Ballad of Sexual Dependency with sarcasm and good humor that somehow coexist.

Speaking of that Ballad, though, reminds me that it was hard to get used to this translation, by Michael Feingold. It works, but seems a little stiff. I was steeped in Eric Bentley's translation, back in the middle 1950s; it seemed to me to have bite and efficiency lacking here — Bentley's "First feed the belly, then feed the mind" (as I recall it) works better than Feingold's "First comes the feeding, then the moral code." I don't know the original text; perhaps Bentley sacrificed literal accuracy to theatrical effect — but isn't that what Brecht and Weill were after?

Julius Caesar continues in repertory through May 8, 2015; The Threepenny Opera through May 9.
Details online at A Noise Within.

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