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Most of the second half of the LA Opera season is being devoted to “Figaro Unbound,” a citywide celebration of the revolutionary energies unleashed by the great trilogy of plays by Beaumarchais. The festival includesproductions of three major operas based on the trilogy, performances of other stage works, and a slew of seminars, exhibitions and study days.
The inaugural event of this ambitious project was the world premiere staging of ¡Figaro! (90210) — The Marriage of Figaro set to a new libretto by Vid Guerriero. Set in contemporary Beverly Hills, Figaro and Susanna are undocumented immigrants in the employ of Paul Conti, a real estate magnate, and his wife Roxane. The plot is driven by Figaro and Susanna’s need to obtain legal status, Conti’s attempts to manipulate the situation for his own sexual ends, and Susanna’s attempt to pay off the coyotes who smuggled her into the country and are now ruthlessly exploiting her. Guerriero’s take on the story is, in one way, superior to Beaumarchais’ and Da Ponte’s: the droit de seigneur has always been a bogus issue, as it probably never existed. By refocusing the story on the issue of undocumented immigration, the plight of Figaro and Susanna is felt more painfully, Conti’s power strikes us as more arbitrary, distasteful, and unjust, while the intricacies of immigration law allow for a more complex and entertaining development of the plot. At several points, this Figaro hints at depths of suffering and betrayal deeper than the original opera. Da Ponte, an immigrant to America himself, would not be turning in his grave at this rewrite; he might even sit up in approval.
However, the biting irony and augmented discomfort of Guerriero’s libretto was weakened by a counter-tendency, both in his writing and in Melissa Crespo’s direction, to deliver a comic paean to Southern California and, ultimately, the entire U.S. While some laughter was generated by the immigration issue, easier laughs were achieved by affectionate tributes to characteristic icons of Hollywood culture: Cherubino, renamed Li’L B-Man and sung by the very appealing Orson Van Gay II, was an embodiment of with-it hip-hop; Basel, sung by the flamboyant Haqumai Waring Sharpe, was a comic mouthpiece for the Gay community; Babayan (Basilio) and Donna Curzon (Don Curzio), sung respectively by E. Scott Levin and Amber Mercomes, were everyone’s worst nightmare of rapacious Hollywood lawyers, while the Countess, Roxanne Conti, sung by the imposing and dramatically voiced Greta Baldwin, was that icon of tin-pot Hollywood tragedy, the aging starlet now in the throes of plastic surgery. Only Figaro — sung with forthright, proletarian honesty by José Adán Pérez — Susanna, played by the delightfully smart and quicksilver Maria Elena Altany, and Conti, whose presence was strongly realized through Craig Colclough’s magnificently resonant baritone, sustained the more serious aspects of the action. At the end — as everyone sang in exuberant tribute to L.A., CA, and the USA — one felt oneself to be at the tail end of a party; when we began we were confronted with a serious indictment of the inhumanity of America’s immigration crisis.
¡Figaro! (90210) was performed in the Barnsdall Gallery Theatre, a charmingly situated building on a hill covered in olive trees, but an inadequate site for opera as the space was too small for the fully fledged operatic voices of the cast. Furthermore sight lines were poor; the stage was too shallow for any significant production work, and the forestage area could only accommodate a seven-piece string orchestra, conducted with brio and excellent pacing by David Kinney Frost.
Rewriting a classic is always a perilous business and Vid Guerrerio has avoided, brilliantly, many of the pitfalls, by constructing a plot that ingeniously parallels the original and introduces extra nuances and variations. But the desire to easily please the audience proved too tempting. As his work wends its way through different productions, it is to be hoped that, like Da Ponte, Guerrerio might focus exclusively on the serious issues at the heart of the action.
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