Stage Door Review 2019

Figaro’s Wedding

Dec 4, 2019

✭✭

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, adapted and directed by Joel Ivany

Against the Grain Theatre, Isaac Turner Schoolhouse, 106 Trinity Street, Toronto

December 3, 4, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15, 18, 19 & 20, 2019

Rosina: “Was she texting him all through the wedding?”

If you asked most opera-goers why they go to the opera, “Having a lot of fun” might not be among the top answers you’d receive. “Hearing great music” or “Hearing great voices” might be a couple of the answers. With Figaro’s Wedding (aka Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro), Against the Grain Theatre has definitely added “Having a lot of fun” to the opera-going experience. Director Joel Ivany has translated and rewritten Lorenzo Da Ponte’s 1786 libretto for Mozart’s opera to relocate it to present-day Toronto. The result is extraordinarily clever and will likely be the most intimate and enjoyable experience of this masterpiece you will ever have.

To set Mozart’s opera in present-day Toronto requires creative rethinking. We have no aristocrats or household servants, so Ivany has made Count Almaviva, now called Alberto (Phillip Addis), rich and the boss of Figaro (Bruno Roy), who is no longer his valet but simply a cash-starved employee. We no longer have the droit du seigneur which Beaumarchais’s play was originally protesting, but we still have toxic masculinity and Alberto, who thinks of himself as God’s gift to women, has no qualms about pursuing Figaro’s fiancée Susanna (Alexandra Smither), even though Alberto is married to Rosina (Miriam Khalil). Cherubino (Lauren Eberwein) is no longer the Count’s page but rather is a graduate student is is rooming in Alberto and Rosina’s house.

Cherubino is a trousers role (a woman playing a man) who is in love with Rosina and in the course of Mozart’s opera is later disguised as a woman. Ivany takes this coy gender-play from the original and simply presents Cherubino as a bisexual who is currently infatuated with Rosina.

 In Da Ponte’s libretto, Figaro’s intention to marry Susanna sets off the series of intrigues that have more to do with the characters’ personal lives that with Figaro’s actual wedding. Ivany has made the focus of his rewrite Figaro’s wedding itself. Therefore, Antonio (Gregory Finney) is not the Alberto’s gardener, but a florist, Marcellina (Maria Soulis) is not the Alberto’s housekeeper but an event manager, Basilio (Jacques Arsenault) is not Rosina’s music teacher but a wedding planner and Bartolo (Gregory Finney again) is not a Alberto’s lawyer but the priest who will preside at the wedding.

One of Ivany’s most ingenious ideas is the full integration of smartphones into the action. 18th-century comedy, like Beaumarchais’s play and Da Ponte’s libretto based on it often depend on the sending, receiving and interception of letters. Here Ivany finds the modern-day equivalent in text messages and in people happening to read messages on other people’s phones. He even has the orchestra simulate cellphone ring tones in the music.

Because of Ivany’s focus on the wedding itself, several of Mozart’s arias have to be repurposed. Therefore, in Figaro’s first aria “Cinque, dieci, venti”, Ivany shows Figaro not measuring off the space for a bed in their new room but figuring out how many people the Isaac Turner Schoolhouse can accommodate. When Alberto kicks Cherubino out of his house because of her flirting with his wife, Alberto does not force Cherubino to enlist in the army and complain to Figaro. Rather Figaro’s buck-up aria “Non più andrai” is amusingly used as the advice of a boomer to the millennial Cherubino about what the chores of daily life – cooking, cleaning, paying bills and the like – that the poor girl will have to face.

In cutting Da Ponte’s story down to only two hours of music plus two 15-minute intervals, Ivany has had to jettison various parts of the original libretto. The role of Barbarina is eliminated. The whole subplot of Bartolo aiding Marcellina to force Figaro to marry her goes missing so that when the two are revealed as Figaro’s parents, Marcellina’s awkward transformation from Figaro’s would-be wife to long-lost mother loses a major part of its humour.

In the original there are two scenes where Cherubino has to hide from the Count – one involving a chair and one involving a closet. Ivany keeps only the latter and the closet in Rosina’s bedroom becomes the loo in a bar where Rosina is holding a bachelorette party for Susanna. Ivany also eliminates Cherubino from the garden scene of Act 4, thus rather severely curtailing the role.

In terms of the music Ivany substitutes spoken dialogue for Mozart’s recitativi secchi. This is not a great loss since Mozart’s Singspiele also uses spoken dialogue. As one might expect with a chamber version of the opera, the chorus of peasants is eliminated. The work has been rescored for piano quintet which works beautifully. Under pianist and music director Rachael Kerr the overture sounds especially fine and Kerr chooses appropriate tempi throughout. Even in the over-resonant acoustic of the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, the instrumental ensemble never overwhelms the singers.

The singers have all been well chosen. Bruno Roy, last seen as Lewis Carroll in AtG’s Kopernikus earlier this year, has a chance to show off his agile baritone and flair for comedy and even twerking. As Susanna, Alexandra Smither not only has a bright, lithe soprano but is adept at physical comedy and is able to keep focus despite the great amount of stage business she is given. Baritone Phillip Addis, coifed with an undercut and dressed in the latest too-tight suit, is excellent at portraying Alberto’s overly high self-regard. His finest number is Alberto’s revenge aria “Hai già vinta la causa! ... Vedrò, mentr'io sospiro”. Miriam Khalil is a very sympathetic Rosina, with a sombre look and dark tone of unhappiness imbuing all her speech and song from her first appearance. The highlight of her portrayal is an exquisite account of the aria “Dove sono i bei momenti”.

Lauren Eberwein sings Cherubino with a vibrant, shining soprano. She fully communicates Cherubino’s complex emotions in a fine “Voi che sapete” as it becomes clearer to Cherubino and to Rosina that Cherubino’s song is not merely a love song but a declaration of love to Rosina. Despite the curtailment of their roles, baritone Gregory Finney, tenor Jacques Arsenault and contralto Maria Soulis all make vivid impressions in their roles. Ivany’s notion of making Bartolo a priest rather than a lawyer increases the humour when Bartolo has to admit to being Figaro’s father, an embarrassment to Bartolo that Finney’s fine acting makes even more amusing.

Figaro’s Wedding may not be the best introduction to Mozart’s opera simply because the more you know the original, the more you will realize how imaginatively Ivany and altered and updated it. Several characters refer to their experiences during this “crazy day” which is a reference to the full title of Beaumarchais’s play that is the basis for Da Ponte’s libretto – La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro. Similarly, people would not realize the reason for Cherubino’s bisexuality in Ivany’s version unless they knew of the strange operatic tradition of trousers roles.

Nevertheless, for those who do already know Mozart’s original and feel that they may have seen it quite often enough, AtG’s production will come as a breath of fresh air. The production proves that Mozart’s 18th-century opera can be very well transferred to the 21st century. With the help of a brilliantly rethought libretto and a team of excellent singer-actors the work can be at least as humorous now as it must have been in 1786.

I did not see AtG’s first production of Figaro’s Wedding in 2013, but it is hard to imagine Ivany’s reconception of the opera being better performed than it is now or staged in a lovelier venue. In AtG’s production when the chairs have been re-arranged church-style in two groups facing forward and we, the audience, become guests at Figaro’s wedding, I can’t think how any production could make the audience feel more delightfully involved in the action than this one.

Christopher Hoile

Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.

Photos: (from top) Lauren Eberwein as Cherubino, Miriam Khalil as Rosina, Alexandra Smither as Susanna, Bruno Roy as Figaro and Phillip Addis as Alberto; Alexandra Smither as Susanna and Bruno Roy as Figaro; Gregory Finney as Bartolo, Alexandra Smither as Susanna, Miriam Khalil as Rosina, Phillip Addis as Alberto and Lauren Eberwein as Cherubino. © 2019 Taylor Long.

For tickets, visit atgtheatre.com.