May 31, 2004
By Rob Kendt
All good things must come to an end.
This is not among the many lessons of Mozart's masterpiece The Marriage of Figaro, which concerns itself more with the end of old contentions and the beginning of new contentments. But it is an adage that comes to mind as director Ian Judge's new postmodern Figaro assumes the L.A. Opera repertory spot held for more than a decade by Sir Peter Hall's beloved traditional version, first staged in 1990 and memorably headlined for all three of its revivals--in 1994, 1997, and 2001--by hard-working local star Richard Bernstein.
If Judge's sleek, glamorous new production doesn't quite measure up to the five-course meal of tenderness, wit and well-earned ardor that Hall's Figaro became, it may yet win us over after a few more laps around the repertory schedule.
For now, there is plenty to savor in this new rendition, from Tim Goodchild's imposing sets to the considerable star wattage--in other words, sex appeal--of its leads. Indeed, with hunky, strapping Erwin Schrott as willful servant Figaro and dark, lovely Isabel Bayrakdarian as his fiancee Susanna, it's easy to feel the heat in this kitchen. The imminent marriage of these two fine specimens, neither of whom Baz Luhrmann would hesitate to cast, seems to send everyone around them into paroxysms of lust.
Their employer the Count (David Pittsinger) wants to pull rank and claim preemptive conjugal privileges with Susanna; the libido of young page Cherubino (Sandra Piques Eddy) alights on any female in sight, though his adolescent desires center on the indulgent, flattered Countess (Darina Takova), who otherwise would like to see her husband's straying attentions return to her. There's also a comic subplot involving a busybody (Anna Steiger) and a supercilious doctor (Michael Gallup) with their own designs on Figaro's honor.
Judge's take on all this maneuvering is scintillating, saturnine, and also strangely cool, almost cynical--more Schnitzler than Shakespeare. On its face, Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto might bear out this more jaundiced view of human folly, but Mozart's music will have none of it. Instead his radiant score encompasses a universe of human feeling far beyond mere jealousy, injured pride and sexual satiety. As mocking as it is earnest, compassionate as it is passionate, Mozart's music knows these characters, and tells their story, more surely than any words could. It's probably the best opera score ever written.
Under conductor Stefan Anton Reck, the music sails along at a fast but not insensitive clip; the music's moments of quiet benediction, usually involving the Countess, register with exceptional grace. Apart from Piques Eddy's warbly soprano as Cherubino--a "pants" role typically sung by mezzo-sopranos--the vocal performances are excellent, though their choral blend is often just shy of that blinding, bracing precision with which Mozart's rousing climaxes can velvet-hammer us into senseless delight.
This is particularly a shame in some large-group scenes, in which the acting performances essentially stop while all eyes onstage follow Reck's relentless baton.
Goodchild's extremely tall sets offer some fascinatingly forced perspectives, though it's not always clear why so much force was needed. And the huge chandeliers that hover above like two-dimensional samovars are not, you'll pardon the pun, especially enlightening. One must admire the stylish insouciance with which costumer Dierdre Clancy moves freely through periods, from 1950s to 1770s and back, without distraction.
I don't mean to sound churlish about this new Figaro on the Music Center block. It's an entirely credible and attractive production of one of Western culture's greatest works. Once the starry flash of its opening fades, this stark, sexy roundelay will have its true test, like any marriage must: the test of time. So, even as I wistfully recall the deep satisfaction of the old-school Marriage, I welcome these newlyweds and wish them all the best.