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A magnificent “Marriage of Figaro:” LA Phil’s modern staging of Mozart classic is a huge success on all fronts

Count (Christopher Maltman) and Countess (Dorothea Röschmann) (Act 2)

Count (Christopher Maltman) and Countess (Dorothea Röschmann) (Act 2)

This past Friday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic unveiled the latest foray into its three-year “Mozart/DaPonte Trilogy” project, the first ever performance (staged or otherwise) of The Marriage of Figaro in the orchestra’s history.  It was glorious in every respect:  visually striking, dramatically compelling, and musically excellent.

Before a single note was played, one marveled at the alterations to the Walt Disney Concert Hall stage.  This year’s production design was turned over to Parisians Jean Nouvel and Azzedine Alaïa, and the two Frenchman came up with drastically different solutions than their predecessors to the challenges offered by doing opera in this iconic but non-traditional space:

  • Cherubino and Susanna (Act 1)

    Cherubino (Rachel Frenkel) and Susanna (Malin Christensson) ( (Act 1)

    For last year’s Don Giovanni, SoCal-based starchitect Frank Gehry invented a jagged white landscape, creating an other-worldly environment which clearly differentiated the stage from the sweeping curves of the warm, wood-panelled room he painstakingly designed for regular concerts.  The sisters Kate and Laura Mulleavy, heads of the LA fashion house Rodarte, responded by creating richly detailed costumes that look like they came out of a sci-fi/fantasy movie.

  • In contrast, Mr. Nouvel consciously embraces and celebrates WDCH’s interior design language, most dramatically in the steep “hill” on the back of the stage where choir benches normally would be:
    • Nearly smooth curves at the extreme wings warp into wavy tiers that, at their center, flank a grand staircase leading to the base of Disney Hall’s famous organ.  Here, the organ bench is supplanted by a massive sofa of a throne for Count Almaviva.
    • The wavy tiers themselves have practical applications, serving as places for the cast to act, pose, or wait (whatever the action requires).
    • In addition, the extreme sides have cutouts which serve as entrance/exits to and from the stage; this was necessitated by the regular doors offstage being blocked by the placement of the LA Phil in a shallow oval pit at the front of the stage — a much more natural location vs. the orchestra being behind the stage as it was for Don Giovanni.
    • Enveloping the orchestra pit were two arms that reached out to the front of the stage, creating a space for the cast to work, not unlike the oval runway in front of the stage at a U2 concert where Bono would prance about.
    • Frankly, I can’t imagine a more perfect solution to staging opera in Disney Hall.  This set-up should be repurposed early and often, or at a minimum, it should serve as the template — the “approved solution,” if you will — for future such productions.
  • In a similar vein, Mr. Alaïa places the cast in contemporary outfits that would look natural in the couture salons of Paris or the red carpet at the Academy Awards.  He took advantage of having a cast of many young and athletic singers by clothing them in some figure-flattering (read:  snug-fitting) costumes.  If his designs for the women were more impressive than the pleasant but rather standard-looking outfits he gave to the men (the notable exception being Figaro’s magnificent zipper jacket featuring a gold geometric pattern on a black background), one can forgive him.

Director Christopher Alden played along, crafting more natural movement and blocking for the singers than he demanded in the stylized, Robert Wilson-like slow-motion of last year’s Don Giovanni.  Moreover, he kept the action much less heavy-handed than he did last year, neither forcing intensity nor inventing unnecessary conflict where none existed.  His integration of some of the characters not normally involved in particular scenes was more clever than distracting, and the comedy he presented was more subtle and sarcastic than slapstick (some blatantly fun tricks notwithstanding). He was aided  greatly by Aaron Black’s lighting, which helped to focus attention where needed on a mostly stark stage, and which also added atmosphere with scenic projections above and behind the stage that changed with each act.

Gustavo Dudamel

Gustavo Dudamel

Similarly, Gustavo Dudamel’s approach was more agile and fluid, with translucent textures that allowed inner voices of the LA Phil to shine through.  The whole orchestra sounded exquisite, and in particular, woodwind principals Whitney Crockett (bassoon), Ariana Ghez (oboe), Michele Zukovsky (clarinet), and Cathy Karoly (flute) were outstanding.  Just as importantly, Mr. Dudamel’s more traditional placement in front the singers allowed him to more sensitively respond to and interact directly with the singers on stage.  This allowed for tighter integration and more spontaneity, serving both music and staging well.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of the staging was the number of times the cast sang with their backs to the front of the stage.  This is almost always a no-no for both dramatic and musical reasons; however, with the crystalline acoustics of Disney Hall combined with what is certainly a sonically resonant stage created by Mr. Nouvel, they not only got away with it, they pulled it off well, and it allowed for some creative blocking.

The combined effect was the creation of a present-day hyper-reality for the action to take place, like we were all peeking in on an abstract reality TV show set in the court of Count and Countess Almaviva — all that’s missing is a TMZ camera or two.

Of course, a handsome staging in and of itself does not an excellent Marriage of Figaro make.  Thankfully, we were blessed with an excellent cast that, in addition to looking great, sang beautifully and acted well too.

Susanna and Countess (Act 3)

Susanna (Malin Christensson) and Countess (Dorothea Röschmann) (Act 3)

Dorothea Röschmann was the grandest of them all, simultaneously bringing great nobility and vulnerability to the role of Countess; her plangent “Dove Sono” caused the audience and orchestra to erupt in a huge, prolonged ovation. Someone, anyone, needs to find an excuse to get her back to a Southern California stage as soon as possible. Christopher Maltman was a wonderfully robust sounding Count, bringing great depth and nuance to his characterization; we could use a lot more of him, too.

Edwin Crossley-Mercer proved to be an energetic, vocally flexible, and dramatically well-balanced Figaro.  Malin Christensson (Susanna) was a little under-powered but technically capable and had among the darkest timbres I’ve ever heard from a soubrette.

Rachel Frenkel was a saucy and confident Cherubino; her/his brief Act 3 transformation from soldier-to-be in long military coat to fashion runway vamping vixen in a torso-hugging pink dress and silver heels was THE visual moment of the performance (yes, even better than a bare-chested Figaro and slip-clad Susanna getting dressed at the beginning of Act 1), not to mention being a bit of a psycho-sexual mind-f**k.

Bartolo (John Del Carlo), Figaro (Edwin Crossley-Mercer), and Marcellina (Ann Murray) (Act 3)

Bartolo (John Del Carlo), Figaro (Edwin Crossley-Mercer), and Marcellina (Ann Murray) (Act 3)

Having veterans Ann Murray and John Del Carlo as Marcellina and Don Bartolo was a bit of luxury casting, each providing great richness to their minor roles.  Simone Osborne was sultry, both visually and vocally, as Barbarina.  William Ferguson (Don Basilio) and John Irvin (Don Curzio) acquitted themselves well in their supporting parts.  Brandon Cedel was a stentorian Antonio, though he often sang noticeably behind the beat.

As good as it all was — and it was VERY good — there were some quirks, most notably with the stylized dramaturgy.  As with last year’s production, Mr. Alden’s abstract approach made it more difficult to follow the action and less immediately funny than in a conventional production; I’d imagine someone unfamiliar with the story would repeatedly get lost.  This was especially the case in the Act 2 scene where the Count and Cherubino are supposed to be hiding behind and on the same chair (there was no such chair used), and throughout the entire Act 4 garden scene of multiple characters being mistaken for others.

And let’s face it:  Figaro is a LOOOONG opera (by non-Wagnerian standards, at least).  By the time we get to Act 4, all of the shenanigans of “this-person-pretending-to-be-that-person” gets a bit old.  With all due respect to Mozart and DaPonte — been there, done that.  (Of course, if we skipped Act 4, we’d miss Susanna’s sterling aria, “Deh vieni,” but far be it for me to undermine my own argument . . . )

Anyway, these are relatively minor complaints.  This Marriage of Figaro is top notch work by everyone involved, and the folks at the Los Angeles Philharmonic should be justifiably buoyant for presenting this winner.  If you’re a fan of Mozart, of opera, or of the arts in general, this is as must-see a cultural event as you’re going to get.   In fact, I may have to go again myself.  Good luck to us all in trying to get tickets for the last two performances.

Random other thoughts:

  • As is usually the case, Marcellina’s Act 4 aria, “Il capro e la capretta,” was omitted.  On the other hand, “In quegli anni,” Don Basilio’s Act 4 aria which is also often cut, was included in this production.
  • During curtain call, the first two musicians that Mr. Dudamel justifiably chose to ask to take a solo bow were the continuo, Robert Morrison (harpsichord) and David Heiss (cello).
  • Many of the women of the LA Phil eschewed their usual black concert outfits for burgundy colored dresses that matched the stage color.  Apparently, these were designed by Mr. Alaïa for them.  I wonder if they got to keep them.
  • This was Robert deMaine‘s official first concert as the LA Phil’s new Principal Cello.
  • The small contingent of the Los Angeles Master Chorale performed from the final row of the Orchestra View section, men and women divided by the organ.  They sang from behind a transparent screen which not only separated them visually from the audience members in front of them, but also provided an additional surface for lighting designer, Mr. Black, to use for his projections.
  • Mrs. CKDH certainly appreciated the beefcake provided by a shirtless Figaro and the, ahem, “closely tailored” white shirt and pants worn by the Count — not that there’s anything wrong with my wife (or any other woman or man, for that matter) ogling a muscular dude, mind you, but as an unabashedly heterosexual guy, I appreciated the shapeliness of all the women much more.  That said, since she and I are both amateur singers, we both found it fascinating to be able to watch the diaphragm of Mr. Crossley-Mercer hard at work during “Cinque . . . dieci . . . .”  Rarely do you get the chance to see the technical aspects and physiology of world-class singing at work.  Seriously.
  • In case you were curious about some other opinions:  Mark Swed (Los Angeles Times) and Jim Farber (San Francisco Classical Voice) pretty much responded the way I did.  Tim Mangan (Orange County Register) heard things more or less the same way, but he saw things rather differently.

RELATED POSTS:

Ensemble and orchestra  (Act 2)

Ensemble and orchestra (Act 2)

Los Angeles Philharmonic: May 17, 2013; Walt Disney Concert Hall
Gustavo Dudamel, conductor
Jean Nouvel, installations
Azzedine Alaïa, costume designer
Christopher Alden, director
Aaron Black, lighting designer
Christopher Maltman, Count Almaviva
Dorothea Röschmann, Countess Almaviva
Malin Christensson, Susanna
Edwin Crossley-Mercer, Figaro
Rachel Frenkel, Cherubino
Ann Murray, Marcellina
John Del Carlo, Bartolo
William Ferguson, Don Basilio
John Irvin, Don Curzio
Simone Osborne, Barbarina
Brandon Cedel, Antonio

Los Angeles Master Chorale: Grant Gershon, music director;

James Darrah, assistant director
Rafael Payare, assistant conductor
Barbara Donner, stage manager
Whitney McAnally , assistant stage manager
Michael Vitale, assistant stage manager
Robert Morrison, rehearsal pianist and continuo
David Heiss, continuo cello

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