Mozart’s opera buffa Le Nozze di Figaro is a multi-layered masterpiece. The da Ponte libretto based on the Beaumarchais play pokes fun at many of the same bumbling, clueless characters seen in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia who struggle through one intrigue after the other only to find in the end that love conquers all. Livermore Valley Opera’s current production has added a new twist by updating the opera, sort of, to the 1940s.
Under the direction of Brian Luedloff, this Figaro now takes place on a 1946 Hollywood soundstage where Director Cecille B. daPonte is filming actors as they perform the opera. The staging is divided into center stage, where props and scenery change depending on which act is being filmed, and the right and left sides where two trailers are parked in subdued lighting. Between takes, the actors retire to their trailers. The panels facing the audience are raised to allow the audience to view the actors’ all-too-human natures, which mirror that of the opera’s characters.
This update seems to accomplish several things. First, it reveals the profound layer beneath the farcical surface of Figaro. The subdued, sometimes quite dim lighting of the trailers is probably meant to symbolically represent the darker, all-too-human impulses of jealousy, revenge, and betrayal that lurk in the shadows. This is a visual and clever way of hammering home this idea, but is it necessary? Seeing Count Almaviva grope Susanna in his trailer between takes is no different than only seeing him fondle her within the opera. Characters, no matter how farcical, usually capture some aspect of human nature. Opera audiences are astute enough to understand this. Second, the update allows the audience to better relate to the characters, the plot, and the setting. Luedloff is quoted as saying that the golden age in Hollywood is “the closest thing we have to royalty and aristocracy” in America. While it might be hard for 21st century audiences to relate to and accept the practice of droit du seigneur, which gave the lord of the manor first conjugal rights of his female servants, contemporary audiences, at least the older set, have heard the stories about many an aspiring actress succumbing to the proverbial director’s couch. A tryst in the trailer of the male lead, Count Almaviva, in this production is meant to equate that director’s couch.
To accommodate the update, the libretto has been revised slightly to include references to the trailers and the film script. We see the minor character of Barbarina rehearsing her lines, for example. But aside from that, I don’t believe the distinction between the “contemporary actors” and the “opera characters” is clearly made; the characters wear their “Figaro” garb in the trailers and address one other by their opera character names; and the only time the film stars’ names are given is in the program notes.
Nevertheless, Luedloff’s staging is mostly effective. The movement of furniture or characters, which provide fluidity and naturalness and break up otherwise static moments, sometimes threaten to upstage a singer, nevertheless, the ludicrous situations and witty repartee hold their own. One such instance involves Marcellina, the housekeeper to Dr. Bartolo, the “doctor of the house” for Count and Countess Almaviva, and Figaro, the Count’s valet, who is betrothed to Susanna, the Countess’ maid. Figaro owes Marcellina money. She insists that he honor his contract to repay her, either by returning the money at once or by marrying her. She rejoices in the thought that she will soon wed the man she adores, only to discover -- warning: spoiler alert -- that she is his long-lost mother and that the “doctor in the house” is his long-lost father. The lawyer in the house, Don Curzio, declares the contract null and void. It’s a funny bit that the lawyer’s first thought is not to ponder the ironic turn of events but to think about the legal papers involved. If this were a true updated version, he might request a DNA test. Nevertheless, to compound the already silly situation, a double wedding is planned. In another funny bit, Antonio the gardener tends to a few flower pots outside one of the trailers rather than to the lush gardens one might expect on the estate of a nobleman. And still another silly situation, although not that original: Cherubino, the Count’s page, doesn’t want to be discovered in a trailer with the wife of his jealous master’s so he drapes a blanket over himself and pretends to be a chair. It is unfortunate that the bright lights on center stage tended to flood out the supertitles, making them difficult to read. The subdued lighting on the trailers, coupled with the somber baroque melodies in the quieter moments in the opera, created some low-energy moments.
The orchestra, with Maestro Alex Katsman doubling as conductor and playing the keyboard, robustly attacked the overture, producing mostly a full-bodied sound, save for a few weak strings and errant horns here and there.
The chorus as villagers, peasants, servants, and wedding guests were in fine voice, as were the principals and supporting cast. Bernardo Bermudez sang his Act III aria “Vedro mentr’io sospiro” with his strong lyric baritone, a voice that has depth, body, and the hint of a once lighter tone. With his handsome looks, Bermudez played the role of Count Almaviva with a striking, commanding presence. Efrain Solis, as Figaro, cut a youthful Figaro with a solid baritone voice. At times, though, he seemed to be reaching for his top notes, belting them out rather than delivering controlled tones. In the role of Countess Almaviva, soprano Lacy Sauter embodied her wounded wife role, singing her beautiful Act III aria “Dove sono” with the most dulcet pianissimos with a control that is difficult from a sitting position. For this, she garnered the first robust bravo of the evening. Christie Conover, as Susanna, has a very strong, well-placed soprano voice with a healthy lower register, reaching an A below middle C in her Act IV aria “Deh vieni, non tardar.” Rounding out the cast were Carl King, who sang a scampy Doctor Bartolo, and must be commended for his agility in spewing out the tongue-twister, rapid-fire words and notes in his Act I aria, “La vendetta”; Deborah Rosengaus as a deliciously shrewish Marcellina; Mason Gates as Basilio; Kiril Havezov as the inebriated gardener Antonio; Alba Franco-Cancel as Barbarina; and Jonathan Orenberg as Don Curzio.
But the highlight of the evening has to go to mezzo-soprano Kristin Choi as Cherubino. For this production, she has the delicious role of playing a woman playing a man playing a woman. She simply steals the show with her charming antics, whether she’s hiding from the Count, or attempting to learn how to march in military fashion, or singing two of the better-known arias in the opera, “Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio” (Act I) and “Voi, che sapete” (Act II).
Tickets are $32-$89. Students 18 years and younger $10 off on all days, all seating sections (student ID required). The opera will be presented at the Bankhead Theater, 2400 First Street in downtown Livermore, at 7:30 on Saturday, March 18, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, March 19. Tickets may be purchased at the box office, online at www.bankheadtheater.org, or by calling 373-6800.