30 May 2013

“Marriage” at the Los Angeles Philharmonic

Take a pair of peripatetic, sharp witted, libidinous dramatists with deeply humanist hearts, add a brilliant, fun loving young composer, who believed in forgiveness, and you end up with The Marriage of Figaro, a comic, always relevant opera, which the Los Angeles Philharmonic Orchestra presented in Disney Hall, as part of its Mozart/DaPonte series.

It all began with an original French play, titled La Folle Journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (A  Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), written by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais in 1773. The work,which was not produced until 1778, had strong political and social overtones, which helped disseminate the concepts of equality and individual rights, that led to the French revolution. Note, however, that at during the period that Beaumarchais was writing his plays, he was also employed by both Louis XV and XVI for secret missions in London.  There are numerous sources for information about Beaumarchais' amorous adventures.  For his life as a secret agent, see the CIA's (unclassified) web page titled “Beaumarchais and the American Revolution.” 

Lorenzo Da Ponte, the poet, who wrote the Italian libretto, was also a man given to wanderings and strange connections.  An ex-Jew, and ex-priest, who had been banished from Venice for licentious behavior, not only did he know Mozart, Casanova and Clement C, Moore (of The Night Before Christmas fame), but Samuel F. B Morse, inventor of the telegraph painted the poet's portrait, which once hung in Columbia University.  Da Ponte's autobiography which describes some of his lurid adventures, is not completely to be trusted.

CTM-8844.gifRachel Frenkel as Cherubino and Malin Christensson as Susanna

It was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who proposed using the Beaumarchais play as an opera libretto to Da Ponte, with the stipulation that the harsh political overtones be removed.  Professor Robert Greenberg considers The Marriage of Figaro, which is Mozart's most popular opera, “among the greatest achievements of artistic striving.” Following their collaboration for The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart and Da Ponte produced two more works, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte.

While it is not unusual for an opera company to plan Mozart/Da Ponte festivals, it is  extraordinary for an orchestra housed in a concert hall to undertake the task.  Even more extraordinary are the lengths and expense to which the Los Angeles Orchestra has gone to produce these performances.  The installation and sets for Don Giovanni, which they offered last year, were created by architect Frank Gehry, who had designed the Disney Concert Hall.  Fashion designers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, created the costumes.  This year, presumably in honor of  Beaumarchais and the opera's Gallic origins, Jean Nouvel, a French architect created the performance area and Parisian based designer Azzedine Alaïa designed the costumes.  Both operas were directed by Christopher Alden. 

Don Giovanni was set on a narrow strip of stage in an all white, galactic looking universe. The  orchestra was behind the stage, so that singers had to follow the conductors beat on monitors.  Nouvel created a deeper stage in a rich maroon color  At the rear, a staircase rose toward the organ.  The stage surface wound around a newly created orchestra  pit to form an apron that allowed for interaction between performers and instrumentalists - and even with the conductor.   This, in fact, provided some moments of fun, which sadly, was often lacking on stage. 

This was a musically superb Marriage of Figaro.  In direct eye contact with the singers as well as the orchestra, Maestro Dudamel conducted a brilliant performance with the fluidity and precision that Mozart demands.  While he hadn't used a score for Don Giovanni, he did employ one for the Marriage of Figaro, at least for the performance I attended on May 19th.   The large, well chosen cast made for additional musical pleasure.  Baritone Edwin Crossley-Mercer was an unusually lustrous voiced, though angry Figaro.  Swedish soprano, Malin Christensson's shimmering Susanna was pert and charming.  As the Countess, soprano Dorothea Röschmann, known world-wide for the role, made her two great arias testaments to her character's deep sorrow.  Christopher Maltman was a suave, elegant, and seductive Count, and Rachel Frenkel offered a charmingly confused Cherubino.  John Del Carlo and Ann Murray, as Bartolo and Marcellina were luxury casting as a pair of unsuccessful plotters, turned loving parents.  William Ferguson, who sang Basilio, and Simone Osborne, as Barbarina, as well as John Irvin and Brandon Cedel, were all excellent.  The Los Angeles Master Chorale was a pleasant but almost invisible presence curtained off high and far behind the stage.

CTM-8946.gifChristopher Maltman as the Count and Dorothea Röschmann as the Countess

While Mozart was well served by the orchestra and singers, our two witty, humanist librettists were not.  When, as the fizzy overture was still being played, the cast wandered onto the stage at a languid, funereal pace. I should have known that this was not to be an entertaining, much less funny theater piece.  The stage though large, was essentially an empty space with no exits or entrances, no place to hide.  Artfully arranged lighting created shaded places, generally on the floor, to which singers retreated in various positions until called upon to sing once again.  In the last act, there were three such bodies on the floor, making the scene appear more like the end of Shakespearean tragedy than an  operatic farce.  One could read titles, and hear voices, but often could not locate the singers.  Figaro sang his teasing, “non piu andrai” to the audience, standing on the apron to left of the conductor.  Meanwhile, Cherubino to whom the words are addressed stood at rigid attention far behind him and the orchestra.  The famous comedic chair scene was performed without a chair or comedy.  I have no idea what the costumer had in mind.  At one point Susanna in a short skirt with cascading blond hair, looked like Alice straight out of Wonderland.  And when she wore her elegant white wedding dress, Figaro, beside her, wore a tight fitting zipped to the neck sweater, looking for all the world like a president about to deliver a fire side chat.  As in last year'sDon Giovanni, the English titles told the audience   things they didn't see.  It was impossible even for knowledgeable opera goers to follow the action, particularly in the garden scene. 

For all its visual failings, however, this staging of The Marriage of Figaro, was more successful than the Don Giovanni.  The use of the large stage improved sight lines.  Placing the orchestra in a pit allowed for freer music making.   Perhaps next year's Così fan tutte, will be ther lucky third that gets it all right.

Estelle Gilson

Production and cast information:

Figaro: Edwin Crossley-Mercer; Susanna: Malin Christensson; Bartolo: John Del Carlo; Marcellina: Ann Murray; Cherubino: Rachel Frenkel; Don Basilio: William Freguson; Count Almaviva: Christopher Maltman; Countess Almaviva: Dorothea Röschmann; Antonio: Brandon Cedel; Don Curzio: John Irvin; Barbarina: Simone Osborne. Los Angeles Philharmonic. Gustavo Dudamel, conductor. Christopher Alden, director. Jean Nouvel, installations. Azzedine Alaïa, costume design. Aaron Black, lighting design.