Le Nozze di Figaro, Mozart

Juilliard Opera Theater

20th February, 2009

A stylish but shallow and misconceived Le nozze di Figaro took the stage of the Peter Jay Sharp Theater on Friday night in a production directed by Isabel Milenski and conducted by Ari Pelto.

The production—a vehicle for students enrolled in Juilliard’s graduate voice programs—should be forgiven the difficulties any school faces when casting operas with students (in this case, most notably, the lack of suitable voices for the Countess and Dr. Bartolo). Still, Figaro is generally thought of as a safe choice for schools, as it requires just two (comprimario) tenors and no really large voices. That said, only one singer among the cast of Friday night’s performance, a fantastic young mezzo-soprano named Rebecca Jo Loeb, managed a truly convincing vocal and dramatic portrayal of her role, that of the randy teenage Cherubino.

In this review I will first address the stage design and action and then the music, which was by all appearances the order of priority for this production. Director Milenski’s staging takes place in the 1970’s, somewhere in the American West (California? Arizona?), and is peopled by two archetypal social groups—nouveau riche and white trash. The American seventies are a recurring theme for Milenski, whose productions of Semele for Long Beach Opera and Cosí fan tutte for Cincinnati Conservatory featured similar aesthetics.


We used to call this mode of staging “Euro-trash”: take an opera (from, say, 1786), transport it to a vastly different, contemporary epoch (1970s, for instance) and then mine the inexact juxtaposition of the two periods (the one in which the opera was intended to take place and the more current one with which we, the audience, are more familiar) for comic (as in this case) or dramatic fodder. Updates like this all face one basic problem: opera has words and words have meaning. Figaro is a comedy of manners, hinging on specific social customs and subtle turns in dialogue in order to really make sense. When eighteenth century European manners are replaced by Farrelly-brothers-esque jokes, the text no longer adds up. It no longer actually corresponds to what is happening on the stage. (An aside: I think that directors get away with this most often when their audience doesn’t understand the language of the original and therefore has less ground from which to mount objections). The intrinsic conflict between the opera’s meaning and the director’s “concept” manifested itself on stage in the form of expressionless faces, half-hearted gesturing and a string of inauthentic moments. Louder than the singing were the singers’ inner monologues: “I think these words mean x, but here I am doing y. Oh, well, I might as well just sing as if I have something to say and hope they believe it,” or, worse, “I think this joke is really funny.”

Milenski and her stage design team of Jian Jung (set) and Clifton Taylor (lighting) know how to create a pretty picture. The opening act is already set when the audience enters the theater: large, graphic wall prints such that Jonathan Adler would approve, a bright orange Saarinen chair on wheels, two free-standing lamps and a rack of colorful clothing at center. Here, as in Ms. Milenski’s Semele, the basic shape of the stage is a horizontal rectangle (achieved in the Sharp theater by bringing down the front-of-stage black drop to a mid-point). As a visual frame and metaphor for the American West, this technique worked extremely well. I was impressed how symbiotically the set worked in relation to the Sharp theater, itself a design product of the late 1960’s; they looked made for each other, something I don’t think I’ve ever experienced in that theater before. The set’s placement also forced the action of the opera to the front lip of the stage, a wise choice in a theater not known for kindness to unamplified voices.

The costuming, by Christina Bullard, was cliché—gold chains on hairy chests, tracksuits, mullets, wife-beaters, etc. No one looked particularly good in the outfits, with the exception of the Countess (Christin Wismann), who appeared stunning in a gauzy, sea-green gown. Moreover, we’ve seen this easy mockery of seventies style before, and done better.

Dramatically, the evening waded through a series of telegraphed situations and jokes. There were moments, such as the aria, “La vendetta,” during which Bartolo disemboweled a suckling pig, that almost delivered on their promise. In theory, Bartolo’s action corresponds in a clever way to the original text; in practice, it fell flat after a few seconds. This may have been Benjamin Bloomfield’s lack of ability to deliver the joke, or it may have been the difficulty of stretching one joke over an entire aria without other motivations or ideas in evidence. In any case, the set-ups came one after another: just after the pig scene, Marcellina and Susanna engage in a shot-drinking contest--again, funny for a few moments, then awkward for the remainder of the scene. Etc, etc, etc. Even in the opera’s tender moments, such as the Countess’ opening aria “Porgi amor,” the focus is on the “comic” action. Here we watch the Count tanning himself with one of those reflective screens rather than paying attention to the Countess’ heartbreak.

I fear, having re-read the preceding paragraphs, that the reader will get the impression I am opposed to updating operas and placing them in new time periods. This is far from the truth. I do, however, have increased expectations for any production that makes such a strong choice. In short, I expect that production to address the imbalances it has created and to make the loss of the author’s original intentions worthwhile. This production accomplished neither. Instead of working toward a connection to text and music, it feels as if Milensky spent her rehearsal time creating stylish pictures and pop culture references, regardless of the meaning that might otherwise have been found in the material. 

Friday night’s cast offered little inspiration other than Ms. Loeb’s Cherubino. The staging did not help matters. Where there were not comic set-ups, the action was static. Singers sang mostly to the audience and avoided eye contact with each other. The whole production smacked of young people playing dress-up.

Soprano Haeran Hong and baritone Benjamin Clements opened the show as the lovers Susanna and Figaro. Ms. Hong employed a straight-tone throughout and never managed to derive much sense or meaning from her many lines of recitative. Mr. Clements has a nice warm tone that is sadly buried somewhere in the back of his throat; he became inaudible whenever the orchestra played above a mp. As lovers, they looked uncomfortable; their first duet ended with a sideways hug.

David Krohn as the Count had more to offer vocally, and provided at least a sturdy, if generic, reading of the role. Ms. Wismann has a lovely, light voice but was miscast here as the Countess. It would have been more interesting and plausible to hear her as Susanna. The Countess demands a legato and a vocal weight she simply couldn’t muster despite her best efforts. Mr. Pelto sent a few “more, more” hand gestures in her direction during the ensembles, but to no avail.

Bass-baritone Benjamin Bloomfield and mezzo-soprano Naomi O’Connell were obviously performing community service by taking on the roles of Bartolo and Marcellina, roles that they would not now essay in the “real world.” Ms. O’Connell sounded like she would make a good Cherubino, though her stage antics as Marcellina were distracting and campy.

On a brighter note, Ms. Loeb brought a beautiful, immediate tone and genuine stage presence to the role of Cherubino, which, as the one drag role in the opera, can often seem silly or forced. She kept up admirably with Mr. Pelto’s quick “Non so più” and sang a lilting and exquisite “Voi, che sapete.” This was the first time I’d heard Ms. Loeb and I look forward to hearing much more.

Putting together a conservatory opera orchestra usually goes like this: take a group of unwilling, aspiring soloists, press-gang them into the opera orchestra with vague threats of “graduate requirements,” and then pray that they learn the notes. As such, we should commend conductor Ari Pelto and concertmaster Quan Ge for delivering a generally proficient reading of the score, and in particular some nice sounds from the strings. Mr. Pelto presided over a decent, if bumpy, performance of Mozart’s score.

I’d like to add a silver lining by noting that, in the end, I walked away humming Mozart’s score. I mention this because there is something immensely wonderful about Figaro that works on me every time. It is heartening to think that, no matter what is thrown at it today, Mozart and Da Ponte’s great work still functions like Teflon—nothing bad can stick.  


John Costello