Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is my favorite opera. The number two doesn’t even come close. I was enchanted by Minnesota Opera’s recent production for honoring the opera by being scrupulously faithful to the text. I was initially less enthralled by Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Figaro (it isn’t called The Marriage of Figaro for a reason), but once I overcame my sense of outrage at the sacrilege of tampering with a masterpiece, I gave myself over to this unique experience that, in the end, proved to be a triumph.
The show opens with a bang—a loud explosion—and we are in 1792 Paris, in the midst of the French Revolution. It is many years since the events of The Marriage of Figaro and an elderly Figaro (Steven Epp) is trying to keep Count Almaviva (Dominique Serrand) alive during the Reign of Terror. Epp and Serrand created this duologue which frames and informs (and sometimes interferes with) the presentation of the opera. It is an amazingly erudite and entertaining colloquy that takes advantage of the full Figaro mythology, bringing in references to The Barber of Seville, the first of Beaumarchais’s plays in which Figaro appears, incorporating incidents from Beaumarchais’s life to fill out Figaro’s back story, and even climaxing with incidents from La Mere Coupable (The Guilty Mother), the third, and almost unknown, play in the Figaro trilogy. The witty text is full of corny and ribald jokes, as well thought-provoking insights—for instance, drawing parallels between Figaro and the burgeoning democracy in America.
Purists expecting The Marriage of Figaro will be lost. Epp and Serrand play fast and loose with Mozart’s masterpiece, often providing just bits and pieces of ensembles, reordering the sequence of numbers, and even assigning arias to different characters. But the results telescope the action in interesting ways and add new levels of nuance and reference to the familiar story. And for all the show’s cavalier attitude to the score, the singers maintain the integrity of the music.
But it’s always dangerous to allow two actors to create a show for themselves. You run the risk that they will fall victim to self-indulgence. Epp and Serrand occasionally fall into that trap, subjecting the audience to their verbal excess. For example, the grand sextet, during which Figaro’s parentage is revealed, loses all its humor when it’s severely cut to give Epp another monologue. Both Epp and Serrand are such exceptional actors, however, that they are able to overcome their shortcomings as playwrights and still deliver deeply heartfelt performances.
The musical values are equally adept. The members of the Penitimento String Quartet, along with music director Barbara Brooks at the keyboard, provide a lively accompaniment. The arrangements are so skillful that I hardly missed the lush sound of a full orchestra. All the performances, instrumental and vocal, are informed by a clear understanding of Mozart’s style, and the impeccable clarity of the ensemble work was amazing.
Jeune Lune’s cast of local singers can stand comparison with any of the singers that Minnesota Opera brought in for their production. Bradley Greenwald portrays a violent and darkly sexy Count, his rich baritone unfazed by any of the athletic feats he was expected to perform. Christina Baldwin brings a perfect physical embodiment of a boy to her performance of Cherubino, along with a resplendent mezzo. Jennifer Baldwin-Peden’s Countess begins as a flighty and high-strung woman, but grows into a noble and commanding character. Her luxurious soprano makes the most of her two great arias and blends perfectly with the Susanna of Momoko Tanno in an enchanting Letter Duet. The performances are enhanced by the subtle use of video, which provides occasional but often striking close-ups of the singers.
Taken on its own, Figaro is a fascinating work that adds immeasurably to the experience of Mozart’s opera. For all its authorial excesses, it is a grand entertainment and a frequently moving piece of musical theatre.
Figaro runs through June 23, in repertory with Don Juan Giovanni, at Theatre de la Jeune Lune.