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Figaro Up, Figaro Down

Director Stephen Wadsworth has brought the Figaro plays of Beaumarchais back to theatrical life. DAVID PATRICK STEARNS reports.

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Stephen Wadsworth's production of The Marriage of Figaro at the McCarter Theatre, 2014
T Charles Erickson 2014
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Wadsworth, director and translator
T Charles Erickson 2014

Somewhere in the last act, Figaro snaps. The bravado of The Barber of Seville and the clenched-teeth determination of The Marriage of Figaro are a distant memory. He's been duped, betrayed and sued to a faretheewell. With all veneer gone, he explodes into an extended rant worthy of Lenny Bruce.

No, this is not the latest wrinkle in German Regietheater, or some perverse interpolation into Mozart's or Rossini's opera: the scene that unfolded at Princeton's McCarter Theatre was in fact these composers' source material, the seldom-produced two plays by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, directed by Stephen Wadsworth and performed in repertory for five weeks in April and May. 

"Figaro has done anything and everything just to get by," says Adam Green, the actor who played him in Wadsworth's production. "Every single time he's swatted back down by the nobility or the powers that be, he gets up with a smile and cheerfully continues with his life. But you know what? It kind of sucks. And yeah, it takes about twenty minutes to say all this." (More like twelve, but it feels like twenty.) The scene also defies all good theatrical sense, coming at a point where plays need to consolidate themselves and scenes are supposed to get shorter, not longer.

Yet Figaro's rant was applauded like an operatic mad scene, even in marathon performances of the two plays that added up to six hours of Beaumarchais in a single day. That's just one symptom of the project's singularity. "I was ready for the squad of dramaturges, but they never came to me," says director Wadsworth. "I think we cut one line."

In a financially-strapped world, where theaters prefer three-character drama that runs ninety minutes, no intermission, The Figaro Plays (as they were collectively called) employed nineteen actors, played at a length that went into stagehand overtime and were acclaimed as one of the peaks of America's regional-theater season. One might hope for a Broadway run similar to Shakespeare's Globe Theatre over the winter, though economics and lack of mainstream star appeal make that scenario unlikely.

Certainly, The Figaro Plays have a built-in attraction for the opera community: though the libretto incarnations of the plays are some of the better ones out there, it's still a surprise to discover that even Mozart's distinguished librettist Lorenzo da Ponte had to tame and contain Beaumarchais for the opera stage. Why, then, did Beaumarchais need to be rediscovered? Doesn't the good automatically survive? 

Much the same was said about Pierre de Marivaux, whom Wadsworth rescued from obscurity by adapting and directing several of his plays with great success during the 1990s. Wadsworth's career, criss-crossing between theater and opera, also included Handel in the 1980s, before his operas were fashionable. One isn't surprised to hear Wadsworth say, "The eighteenth-century is my second home."

Inevitably, audiences couldn't help processing The Figaro Plays through the lens of the more famous operas that they became. Rossini's librettist, Cesare Sterbini, missed a rich complication in the all-too-easy resolution of Il Barbiere di Siviglia's Act II: the heroine, Rosina, quite nearly marries the wrong man — her guardian Bartolo — when she becomes certain that her younger suitor, Lindoro, is pimping for Count Almaviva (not knowing they're the same person). With it, in the Beaumarchais original, come incredibly complicated machinations to get characters in and out of Bartolo's comically locked-tight house.

If Mozart's Nozze di Figaro seems to resolve itself too neatly in Act III, when Figaro realizes the much-older Marcellina is in fact his lost mother, Beaumarchais precedes that revelation with a long courtroom scene, a life-and-death battle of wits that could well have left Mozart throwing up his hands at how anything so complicated could lend itself to music. At the McCarter, the scene played like a chess match at warp speed. Knowing that it's a doozy, Wadsworth rehearsed what he calls "this amazing, silly, heavenly scene" from day one, so that it would ricochet off the stage. It did.

The never-performed third part of Beaumarchais's trilogy, The Guilty Mother, is generally thought to be a downer: Rosina has had a child by Cherubino, who has died in battle. Of the three, this was the one Wadsworth most wanted to direct. "We ran short of money," he explains. The best he could do was a one-night reading that seemed to confirm the play's inferior reputation — although Wadsworth disagrees with this verdict. "So much content is encoded in the way of speaking, the gestural style," he says. "What interests me is why did this person write the play? What was he addressing? How were they shouting out the period in which it was written? 

"Barber is not very consequential when you read it on the page. You have to ask yourself what would've been the 'depth charges' for that audience — and give it the benefit of our post-Freudian world, which is to look at it from the inside out and play it for keeps."

The stage design for The Figaro Plays was consistent with theater of that period, with painted drops, footlights and scenes played in front of the curtain, allowing characters to talk to the audience in witty asides. Class-division dynamics had to be unpacked a bit: such things were so fully understood in the eighteenth century that no discussion was necessary. Wadsworth wrote a new scene himself to flesh out characters and plot — basically to externalize what was taken for granted in Beaumarchais's day, as he did with the Marivaux plays. Indeed, Beaumarchais's plays sit on the cusp of one of history's most seismic shifts. 

Rising from humble circumstances, Beaumarchais (1732–99) came to move among royalty with such forward-looking politics that he helped negotiate the alliance between France and the fledgling U.S. during the Revolutionary War, personally seeing that rifles got to where they were needed. His life fell into ruins periodically — he was jailed on spurious charges — and he spent years in litigation. He was Figaro, but angrier. Written in 1775, The Barber of Seville needed a rewritten, toned-down Figaro before it became a hit. The more incendiary 1781 Marriage of Figaro was banned until 1784, despite the intercession of Marie Antoinette.

This world might seem alien to the one that Wadsworth created in the rather different kind of work through which he made his name, Leonard Bernstein's Quiet Place. Wadsworth's brutally realistic libretto depicted a modern suburban family drowning in toxicity, fueled by alcohol and mental illness. Beaumarchais was also a fair distance from Wadsworth's best-known opera productions, such as the Ring cycle in Seattle and Boris Godunov and Rodelinda at the Metropolitan Opera.

But eighteenth-century theater grabbed him and wouldn't let go: "In the 1980s, I kept seeing Marivaux's name while I was working in Europe. I looked at the name, literally, and said, 'Oh, I have business with that word.'" Now, Wadsworth's adaptations are widely published and performed. The more politically charged thickets of Beaumarchais represented the next generation (Marivaux died in 1763) and a logical next step. However, the project was five years in the talking and only got underway when grant applications went out in 2010. 

A rest cure from the Ring cycle? Hardly. Directing two plays simultaneously while accessing and tweaking his own scripts was perhaps enough to leave him longing for Alberich. "I can't finish [an adaptation] without actors and playing it in front of an audience," he explains. 

The Marriage of Figaro, in particular, had surprises: "You men … who shame the playthings of your desire, even the objects of your love, who make victims of us!" So says Marcellina, a purely comic character in Mozart but a pre-feminist firebrand in Beaumarchais, who likens a woman's plight to slavery. That speech was cut from the original production at the Comédie-Francaise. 

Obviously, Wadsworth needed actors who could handle huge blocks of text. He also gravitated toward people with melodious voices; as Rosina, he cast opera soprano Naomi O'Connell, who sang Despina in Wadsworth's Juilliard production of Così Fan Tutte. Classical-theater experience was important: though Adam Green admits to knowing nothing about the Figaro operas, he has many credits with Washington, D.C.'s Shakespeare Theatre Company, which count for much even though Beaumarchais's characters have more elusive needs than do the Bard's.

Shakespeare monarchs command the stage and comment on the proceeding by virtue of their innate royalty. Figaro is too busy weaving clever webs of white lies to save those he loves. Characterization has to be delivered on the run. "If he stops to think or get bogged down in his emotions, he's dead in the water," said Green via e-mail, to save his voice for performances. 

By comparison, the Ring cycle does start to look easy, with its unbroken performing tradition to fall back on. Yet Wadsworth persevered with Beaumarchais, partly as an act of debt repayment to Figaro & Co., who, during his early years, represented his quiet place. 

"They helped me survive my childhood, and I don't exaggerate. Figaro and Susanna, in particular, were resilient and life positive. They bounced back. And they were kind," he said. "I needed people of grace who also carried in them experience that was horrifying, jumping through hoops with no legal recourse. I was in a family that didn't just break but blew apart. My mother had severe mental illness — which was undiagnosed and highly problematic."

Now married to New York-based actress Francesca Faridany, and father of a four-year-old child, Wadsworth longs to direct more eighteenth-century theater. But for now, he's committed to Fidelio at Santa Fe Opera and Marriage of Figaro for the Juilliard School (where he now teaches). He can also see, in the murky distance, a possible return to the place where he started, among the emotionally tortured suburbanites of A Quiet Place — this time as a director. 

Wadsworth turned down New York City Opera's Quiet Place production in 2010, because he thought someone else should take a crack at it. "That's how you find out if the piece has a life," he says. "But it's always in the air. There's going to be a revival at one of the big houses in Europe. There's a plan for several conservatories to do it with me directing. And I don't know how I feel about it." spacer

DAVID PATRICK STEARNS is music critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer. He is also arts journalist for WRTI-FM, reviews opera for Gramophone magazine and WQXR's Operavore blog and has his own blog, Condemned to Music, on ArtsJournal.com.

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Current Issue: September 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 3