By Richard S. Ginell: From Out of the West
Hallelujah! An opera update that works.
I am speaking of a romp called ¡Figaro! (90210), a surprisingly delightful overhaul of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro that just kicked off LA Opera’s Figaro Unbound festival over the past weekend.
It’s goodbye Seville, hello Beverly Hills in 2015. Figaro and his fiancée Susana (sic) are now undocumented Mexican workers in the mansion of real-estate wheeler-dealer Paul Conti (get it?) and his former TV actress wife Roxanne. Dr. Bartolo becomes Babayan, a sinister Armenian Mafioso, Marcellina a predatory Korean factory owner named Soon-Yi Nam, Cherubino a slender black rapper called L’il B-Man (Bernard, to his mom). Don Basilio turns into Basel, a mincing SAT tutor for Barbara (Barbarina), now the Contis’ bored teenaged daughter. Almost all of the ethnic bases are covered, it seems. Of course, illegal immigration comes up – so does the inequality of income gap, age discrimination, the ubiquity of smartphones, sexting, plastic surgery, and other aspects and debris of Southern Californian life.
It could have turned into a frivolous distortion, or a bad soap-opera. Yet improbably, unbelievably, I’ll say it again – the thing works, and what’s even more astonishing, the more you know about The Marriage of Figaro, the more you’ll enjoy this.
Give a ton of credit to one Vid Guerrerio – whose day job is apparently as a “film marketing strategist” – who came up with his own English (and “Spanglish”) libretto that is not only extremely clever, funny, insightful, and full of interior rhymes, but also is amazingly faithful to Mozart and Da Ponte. In some of the arias, rendered in very singable English, he even manages at times to choose words that fit the Italian pronunciation of the original Da Ponte text. He rarely repeats himself, so we are spared repetitions of streams of thought in arias and ensembles that I have always found to be a tiresome aspect of 18th-century style.
It’s such a resourceful transformation of the original opera that you can sit back and enjoy Guerrerio’s glee in working his way through the plot, translating seemingly on the fly. At the point in Act III when Figaro discovers his real parents, you wonder; how is Guerrerio going to worm his way out of this one – a Mexican son with an Armenian father and a Korean mother! But like Figaro himself, Guerrerio finds a way.
This is not the usual regietheatre special that imposes different time frames on existing words and music, with often idiotic results. Rather, this is a total makeover that doesn’t clash with the music. Not only that, it makes a convincing case for a chamber version of Mozart, with only a spirited seven-piece ensemble providing all the backing this youthful, energetic, polyglot cast needs in the small 299-seat Barnsdall Gallery Theatre near Hollywood. There are cuts – this version, not counting intermission, ran a little over two hours – but just about all of the essential music is intact.
There were only three performances scheduled, but the demand was great enough so that LA Opera Off-Grand had to add a fourth on Sunday evening. Would that there be more someday.