A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part Two: Not Your Parent’s Figaro

In 1784, La Folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Crazy Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’s sequel to his hugely success The Barber of Seville had its delayed premiere at the Comédie-Francąise – delayed as the author had written the play from 1775-78, but the Parisian censors wouldn’t allow the play to be produced until then.

Remember that these were the years leading up to the French Revolution, and a play in which the main themes are social inequality and outright contempt for the nobility and, not least, portraying the servant class as more humane than and able to outwit the aristocracy, made for a very dangerous evening at the theatre.

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Print from early production of the Beaumarchais play

A scant two years later, Lorenzo Da Ponte reworked the play into arguably Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s operatic masterpiece, Le Nozze di Figaro. As is always the case when translating a play into an opera, Da Ponte brilliantly condensed Beaumarchais’s provocative play into tight narrative and, in doing so, deleted most of the politics and revolutionary ideas. What remained was a work of art from which future generations of operagoers could enjoy a “light” entertainment about how the servant outwits his master and all is forgiven at the end of the evening.

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From the Met’s current production of the opera, as seen in the 2014-15 season

(It should be pointed out that Da Ponte’s libretto was totally at the liberty of the Viennese censors, who demanded that he delete or play down the more controversial aspects of the play so that Mozart’s sponsor and patron, the Emperor Joseph II, could not possibly be offended.)

What’s interesting is that, when it came time to present the opera in Paris (in 1792), the French Revolution was at its height. As a result, it was decided to reinstate the more controversial aspects of the original source material. As Mozart was now dead, revising the opera was out of the question. Instead, Beaumarchais was brought in to decide which parts of his play were to be included. In order for the opera to have a manageable length, Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s recitatives were excised and, in their place, Beaumarchais inserted dialogue from the play.

Mozart’s charming opera would now become a highly-charged political amalgam of the play and the opera. Let them eat cake, indeed.

It cannot be denied that Beaumarchais’s play was a pungent satire with a striking political edge, and that Mozart’s opera downplayed the more controversial elements while retaining its punch for those who were able to see past the charm elements. However and, perhaps, most significantly, both the play and the opera conclude with the Countess generously forgiving the Count his transgressions and the evening ends on a hopeful note of reconciliation.

It’s probably difficult – if not downright impossible – for 21st century audiences to appreciate what it might have been like to attend the earliest productions of the play and opera. The aristocracy was probably outraged and not a little bit nervous over what they were seeing, while the general population may have felt validated to see people like them standing up for themselves and daring to talk back to their masters.

Interestingly, modern audiences now have the opportunity to encounter an updated version of the story: ¡Figaro! (90210), Vin Guerrerio’s uproarious “revisal” of the Beaumarchais/Mozart/Da Ponte source material. Originally presented under the auspices of LA Opera Off Grand, you have until Saturday, April 3rd to see this witty and extremely relevant iteration at The Duke on 42nd Street in New York City.

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Set in modern day Beverly Hills, Figaro and his intended, Susannah, are now undocumented illegals; the Count and his Countess are now Paul Conti, a somewhat shady real estate developer and his Botox-ed actress wife, Roxanne. The Count’s page, Cherubino, is now the aspiring hip-hop artist, Li’l B-Man. You get the idea.

Figaro 90210 - 03

Mr. Guerrerio’s brilliant and cleverly reimagined libretto is performed in English and “Spanglish”. Most importantly, it once again makes the story relevant, but in a highly entertaining way. Indeed, this is not your parent’s Figaro.

So, within the space of 3 days, we saw a hugely entertaining production of Puccini’s Tosca at a former bus terminal in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn and, now, a “ripped from the headlines” and highly relevant production of ¡Figaro! (90210).

Opera is very much alive and thriving in New York.

CULTURE TIP: ¡Figaro! (90210)

 

 

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A Week in the (Cultural) Life – Part One

Greetings and Salutations! Yes, we’ve been away for a few weeks, but now we come roaring back. I hope everyone made it through the winter and is enjoying some milder weather and the expectation of warmer things to come.

We’ve been very busy ourselves, although we haven’t been out of the city since our return from Antarctica and Buenos Aires. The cultural scene has been extremely busy and will continue for the next month or so.

I thought you might be interested to know what we’ve been up to over the past week. It’s been all culture and eclectic culture at that. The accent has been mostly on opera. However, it hasn’t been your mom and pop’s opera, as you will soon see.

Last Saturday night, we returned to Brooklyn to attend LoftOpera’s first production of the year, Puccini’s Tosca. You may recall that, this past December, we visited LoftOpera for the 1st time to see their production of The Rape of Lucretia and were pretty much blown away by the audacity of the experience.

In the first place, LoftOpera has made a commitment to take the “elite” out of opera, without sacrificing what’s important: great works being performed by talented up and coming singers in unusual surroundings at affordable prices and with a real party vibe.

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AAC CPA arrives with the ArcAngel Michael over his shoulder

Did I mention that the audience is mostly comprised of youngsters (i.e., the under 30-crowd) looking for a great night on the town?

Or that, one of LoftOpera’s sponsors is the Brooklyn Brewery, so that beer is available throughout the performance? (One of the more piquant enjoyments of this Tosca performance was to hear the tinkling of beer bottles tipping over now and then and yet again.)

Oh, and did I mention that Tosca was presented in an old bus depot in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn in so isolated a part of town that even Uber had a hard time finding the place?

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How we found the bus depot – this sign in the darkness

Or that, during intermission, the beer continues to flow freely while house music blasts over the speakers?

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The cool and young audience enjoying culture and the party atmosphere

Or that, most importantly, this Tosca was the best production of Puccini’s “shabby little shocker” on the opera scene in New York (and I include a certain production of the work in the repertoire of a certain opera company located at Lincoln Center).

Oh yeah, and tickets are $30. Yes, you read that right: $30 will get you an opera.

Backed by a 32-piece orchestra and energetically conducted by Dean Buck, this Tosca took flight. The cast, headed by Eleni Calenos in the title role (diminutive in appearance, but packing a huge soprano voice well versed in the verismo style), James Chamberlain (our Cavaradossi with his beautiful upper register and thrilling high notes) and Kevin Wetzel (the perverse – and I mean that in a good way – Baron Scarpia) put it all out there at what was the closing performance of the run.

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Cavaradossi and Tosca, Act I

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Baron Scarpia – Act I (Te Deum)

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Tosca takes matters into her own (bloody) hands

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Tosca and Cavaradossi – Act III

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Spoiler Alert: It ends badly for everyone

And I have to give a shout-out to Jordan Pitts as Scarpia’s head henchman, Spoletta (and one of the creepiest and most threatening Spolettas I’ve ever witnessed – you wouldn’t want to run into this guy late at night in Bushwick!). Normally a comprimario role that disappears into the scenery, this Spoletta was a junior Scarpia in training.

Although the performance was sold out with over 500 people attending, the performance space allowed for an intimacy between the characters and the audience that would be impossible at almost any other venue. I’m not kidding when I tell you that there were times that the singers were literally within 2 feet of where we were sitting. And, in fact, the performance was SO sold out that there were about a dozen people sitting on the floor in front of what would be the first row.

(In fact, the company’s executive producer (and set designer for this performance), Daniel Ellis-Ferris, was sitting directly in front of us (on the floor) as he synchronized the projected titles onto a screen over the set.)

Tosca - Titles
How the titles work (Thanks, Dan!)

The production was imaginatively staged and authentic to the creators’ opus, notwithstanding a number of anachronisms that were both witty and yet, somehow, appropriate (although I doubt that Spoletta would have received the news of Napoleon’s victory at Marengo via his cellphone).

Bottom line: kudos to Dan and Brianna (LoftOpera’s general manager), the cast and all involved with this very successful production of Tosca.

NY Times on LoftOpera’s Tosca

Next up for LoftOpera: Rossini’s Le Comte Ory in June. Stay tuned or, better yet, order your tickets as soon as they go on sale!

CULTURE TIP: LoftOpera