Adam Green, Maggie Lacey, and Naomi O'Connell. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Adam Green, Maggie Lacey, and Naomi O’Connell in THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO at the McCarter Theatre Center through May 4.  – Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What was good got much, much better.  THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, the second of the two FIGARO PLAYS on offer at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton makes up and then some for any shortcomings found in the first.  This exuberant production is high-energy and infectious from the very beginning, and it continues to dazzle through its three-plus hours that fly by all too quickly.

Where Adam Green’s Figaro of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE seemed rather lackluster and introspective, here, he’s a dynamo who whirrs even when standing still.  He’s always thinking, even when he’s incorrect, and the result is like watching a tightly wound spring that may explode at any second, and he maintains this tension throughout the entire evening and then overcome a huge monologue Beaumarchais has given him near the very end of the play which he does with ease.

Indeed, the entire cast is to be commended in superlatives as they whisk the audience along in this delightful melee.

Once again, if you’re a fan of the opera, you’ll know the story.  Figaro (Green) is back in the employ of Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe) who is now married to his quest of the first play, Rosine (Naomi O’Connell), and Figaro is about to be married to his love (Suzanne) Maggie Lacey.  The only problem is that the Count is infatuated with Suzanne and wants to reestablish a custom he previously abolished, droit de seigneur or the right of the master that allows him to bed a servant’s wife on her wedding night.   Neither Figaro, Suzanne, nor Rosine is happy about this, but Almaviva seems to have decided that he has to do it although he is not truly happy about it himself.  He has once again enlisted the aid of Bazile (Cameron Folmer) to act as his go-between, but Bazile has his mind on other issues.

The complications in this play are many, and they add a host of new and hilarious complications.  Since Almaviva wants Suzanne as his mistress, he is pleased that Marceline (Jeanne Paulsen) who is Dr. Bartolo’s (Derek Smith) housekeeper has a promissory note that states that Figaro must marry her.  Almaviva hopes to push this issue in court, but he is somewhat obstructed by Bazile who is in love with Marceline.

Further complications come from one of Almaviva’s pages Cherubin (Magan Wiles) who is also the godson of Rosine.  Cherubin is in love with anything wearing a dress, and he has fallen from favor with the Count because he has been found canoodling with the shepherdess Fanchette (Betsy Hogg) who is also a target of the Count’s affections.  Cherubin is also in love with Rosine and even states that he thinks making love to Marceline would be an excellent adventure.  How all of these characters try to get the better of each other through trickery and disguises and the secrets one discovers along the way makes this one wonderful roller-coaster ride.

The focus has shifted from Rosine and Almaviva as the lovers to Figaro and Suzanne who are now those in trouble and needing help, and Lacey’s Suzanne is every bit a match for Figaro’s wiles.  Lacey is simply superb.  She is charming and has a presence that draws the audience to her.  When she is on stage with O’Connell who delivers another stellar performance, it is bliss.   Magan Wiles’ Cherubin is a glorious study of pained adolescence.  She captures the changeability of youth perfectly and is at once pitiable and annoying (in a good way).

Neal Bledsoe seems much more at home in this Almaviva skin.  His man of action who seems torn between two minds is a much more positive presence on the stage.  The man is still a major heel, but he’s a heel one can understand and possibly find sympathy for.  Derek Smith is, once again, wonderful.  I don’t need to add any more to that.  I’ll happily go to see him in anything if these two plays are any indication of his abilities.

The plot twists are numerous and the evening speeds by all too quickly.  It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a night in the theatre like this.

Charles Corcoran’s sets are more pleasing to the eye here.  Granted, there are more scenes and locations in this play than there were in the first, but here, the dull walls are given variety by windows allowing more light and patches of blue to show through.  There is a lighter, brighter feel to these settings.  Joan Arhelger’s lights offer more variety here as well and are generally better suited to the lightness of the script.  Only in the night scene near the end do they go through some tortured changes and leave most of the cast in half-light and shadow.

There is a wonderful variety in the costumes by Camille Assaf here; no longer is everything dull.  Even though were still mostly in a palate of earth-tones, there are some rich hues that offer some relief from the brown/gray of the sets.  Assaf’s designs are once again nicely realized, and this wider and brighter palate server them well.

Stephen Wadsworth’s adaptation and direction are once again delightful as well.  The pace is perfect with the audience being allowed to pause and reflect when necessary and pushing through the comedic moments, heaping them on one another to glorious effect.

I am truly sorry for gushing, but this production so richly deserves it.

Another aspect of this script that I found particularly interesting was its timelessness and appropriateness for today.  Marceline, who had little to do in the first play but who is pivotal in this one, delivers a telling monologue about the place of women in society.  She bemoans the fact that women are subjected to a society that does not fully value them, that looks on them as commodities who are worth less than men.  I found this to be highly topical concerning the statements currently being made by some politicians concerning equal pay and opportunities for women today.  She also rails against her being even more powerless because she has no money and is at the mercy of the rich who own and control most of society.  This too is all too poignant when compared to the world some 250 years later.

It must be noted that Jeanne Paulsen is brilliant as Marceline.  Her monologue is delivered honestly and directly, and one can feel her pain as she explains her plight.  Paulsen is solid throughout the night, but she truly shines here.

I wanted to brilliantly weave some of Wadsworth’s translated lines through this review, but I thought it might be more fun to let them live on their own.  That way, those of you who go to see this show, and you should go to see this show – both shows, would also have the joy to see from whence they come.

Here are a few of my favorites  (I’m sorry if any are incorrect.  I was writing as fast as I could, and it was dark, after all.):

“What mortal abandoned by heaven and womankind would want you?”

“If I could get her without a struggle, I’d want her even less.”

“I won’t speak to my character, but I’m definitely better than my reputation.”

“Of course I tell him everything except what I don’t tell him.”

“I should have known that you were my mother when I started borrowing money from you.”

“If you don’t stand up to them, you are utterly dependent to them.”

…And my favorite,

“The only good thing about a theatre is that you can take a nap in it.”

Like several other Wadsworth translations/adaptations, I am sure that there will be more chances to see THE FIGARO PLAYS as it is produced in other regional theatres, but if you are in the Princeton area, by all means try to see both of these plays.  Even though THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO is a more developed and complex story, the two together are a remarkable theatre-going package.  There is a reason the works of people like Beaumarchais survive.  There is a timelessness and a universality that reaches across decades, and they are just as fresh and alive each time they are performed.  Together at The McCarter Theatre Center, they are simply a joyous romp.

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO continues in repertory with THE BARBER OF SEVILLE through May 4 in the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place in Princeton, NJ 08540.  For information, call (609) 258-2787 or visit their website at http://www.mccarter.org.

 

Among the trends in theatre lately is another frightening one.  Some directors seem to feel that it is acceptable to impose any theme or idea they want on an existing script regardless of that concept’s validity.  For example, recently I saw a production of MACBETH where the director decided that all of the actors, male and female, would take turns playing both Macbeth and Lady Macbeth.  Each passed the crown to the next performer in line to express the theme that “there is evil in everyone.”  MACBETH does not contain the theme “there is evil in everyone.”   The major theme of “blind ambition corrupts” has been good enough to make the play successful for almost four hundred years, but that’s not good enough for that production’s director.  The result was annoying for those who knew the play and totally incomprehensible to those who did not.  This can also be seen as a lack of trust in the material or in the audience’s ability to understand it.

Shakespeare has long suffered from the frenzy to make his work “more accessible” and “more relevant.”  Once again, the works have survived and have been constantly performed, and the fact that these plays have survived in spite of all of the meddling by many misguided directors is a testament to the quality of the work.

Over the years, I have seen operas fall prey to the same treatment.  At times, these unusual treatments work.  Quite often, they don’t.

I have almost always enjoyed going to English National Opera productions.  They often do operas that I would not otherwise get to see, and they often approach the material in interesting ways.  Although not all of these approaches are successful, the singing and playing are generally first rate, so any visit to ENO is worthwhile in one way or another.

Recently, Terry Gilliam of Monty Python fame staged Hector Berlioz’s THE DAMNATION OF FAUST, and he imposed his own theme on the piece, a theme that is not in the original, and a theme that overshadowed the themes and story already decided upon by Goethe or Berlioz.  To be fair, this version of FAUST is not generally considered an opera.  Berlioz himself considered it a légende dramatique while many others consider it an oratorio.  However, it still has its basis in the Faust legend which had absolutely nothing to do with Nazi Germany or the Holocaust.

I want to make clear that Gilliam is responsible for three of my favorite films: THE ADVENTURES OF BARON MUNCHAUSEN, TIME BANDITS, and BRAZIL.  I generally like his approach and off-center attitude towards things, but here, he has allowed his “vision” to overpower what the work’s creators provided, and he does a disservice to the material as a result.  It really looked as though he did not trust that Berlioz’s glorious music would continue to carry the original, simplified plot along as it has since the work was written in 1846.

Before going too deeply into the problems, credit must be given to the superb cast and musicians.

I was thrilled to see and hear Christine Rice again after enjoying her as Carmen last year.  Her Marguerite is simply glorious from her soaring highs to earthly chest-voice.  Her most famous aria, “D’amour l’ardente flame” (“Love is an ardent flame”), is absolutely stunning even though it was bizarrely staged.  She is obviously a talent with few limits as I have now seen her handle beautifully two very diverse women’s roles, each requiring entirely different approaches.  I can hardly wait for my next opportunity to see and hear her.

Her Faust, Peter Hoare, has a huge hurdle to overcome in this production, but Hoare, who has had an interesting and varied career, is still able to shine.   Because of Gilliam’s concept, Faust almost become secondary or even tertiary to Marguerite and Mephistopheles.  Hoare’s clarion voice effortlessly presents Berlioz’s emotionally drenched music, and as long as you don’t look too closely at him (as he resembles a cross between Eraserhead and a member of the Irish Band Jedward with a ridiculous shock of red hair that makes him look the fool), he’s quite effective as the impetuous lover.

I was also impressed by Christopher Purves who sings Mephistopheles as I remember Purves as one of the members of Harvey and the Wallbangers in the 1980’s, and he is an incredibly impressive force on the opera stage.  It may sound elitist, but one doesn’t expect a rock’n’roll singer to make the transition to opera so beautifully.  He’s had quite a varied operatic career, and he not only sings Mephistopheles beautifully, but his acting is also first-rate with just the right touches of malice and irony.

Edward Gardiner conducts the glorious ENO orchestra with a deft hand here and supports the singers beautifully.  There is never any conflict between the two groups which is imperative.  When adding the committed and adroit ENO chorus, the musical portion of the evening is delightful and even more so if one just listens and does not look at the production.

Why this treatment has gotten such rave reviews is beyond me.

Gilliam has decided to impose the rise of the Nazis and the Holocaust on this fabled love story which is simply unnecessary and removes the focus from the fall of Faust and the seduction of Marguerite while often ignoring the text, and I have always found this kind of distortion unconscionable.

Here, Marguerite is a Jewess and is not sentenced to death because she accidentally kills her mother by overdosing her on a sleeping drug so that Faust can visit her.  In fact, as far as I remember, it isn’t even mentioned here.  Instead, Marguerite is taken to a death camp after what appears to be Kristallnacht.  There is alsosubstantial staging dedicated to the anti-Semitic dealings of the Nazis which further detracts focus from Faust’s quest and Mephistopheles’ conquest.

Now, the original libretto by Hector Berlioz, Almire Gandonanière and Gérard de Nerval does not include very much of a story, so it might be a temptation to directors to “flesh it out.”  However, some common sense with the libretto should prevail.

I was not taking notes during the opera, but a few awkward moments were so jarring that they remain fresh in my memory.  During the “love scene” between Faust and Marguerite, they both sing about the rapture of being in each other’s arms.  This is a lovely moment except for the fact that Faust is inexplicably washing Marguerite’s feet at that moment.  Why would he wash her feet?  He shows no other signs of a foot fetish.  They both sing repeatedly about this, so I guess the audience is supposed to ignore that aspect.

Another moment that is ruined is when Marguerite waits in vain for Faust to return to her.  She clearly sings about “standing at her window,” but because of the imposed themes, she is sitting on a suitcase in a darkened boxcar on the way to a death camp when she sings this.  She shows no other signs of insanity, so why she should be singing about waiting for Faust to come at this point is unclear.  Hugo Macdonald translated this version of the libretto, so why Gilliam did not work with him to alter the text to fit the Gilliam vision and remove such irregularities is a wonderment.

The final scene is also problematic.  As Faust is dragged to hell and Marguerite makes her ascension to heaven, Marguerite sings what is arguably the most beautiful aria of the evening.  Here, Marguerite is lying atop a pile of dead bodies from the Nazi death camp.  This not only goes against the libretto, but it also lessens the horrific situation it is representing.  Judging from the comments I overheard at the end of the opera, it also confused quite a few of the audience members who simply did not realize what was happening.  This, coupled with Faust in a straightjacket being strapped and suspended upside down to a swastika, seems to get further away from the sources and overwhelmed the intentions of both Goethe and Berlioz.

I’m afraid that this approach is a bit to “Emperor’s New Clothes” to me.  No, it is not acceptable to do anything one wants to a script.  As far as I’m concerned, directors and designers have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of the material while making a production interesting.  The saving grace here (no pun intended) is that the glorious singing and playing are still there when your eyes are closed.

Well – I have a post script – unfortunately.

A disrespect for material far greater than this production of THE DAMNATION OF FAUST has also been perpetrated by ENO.  Christopher Alden has staged a repugnant MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM that voids every aspect of Shakespeare’s most magical play.  Set in a dingy gray boys’ school devoid of color, soul, and humor, this DREAM keeps much of Shakespeare’s text as delivered by Benjamin Britten’s music and simply ignores it.  This has been called intelligent by some critics, but it must be one of the most dismal productions I have ever seen.

Alden’s Puck is a damaged school boy who was seemingly abused by the callous Oberon as headmaster.  His Titania is an oversexed music teacher who ends up in a basement “bower” with Bottom who is made to look like an ass but he wears no ass’ head.  The purple flower that causes people to fall in love seems to be a joint, but it’s hard to tell since everyone, children’s chorus and all, seem to be lighting up.

This production is a travesty.  Why bother to use an existing libretto if you’re just going to ignore it?  I pity the singers as once again, the singing is lovely, but they’re forced to perform such ludicrous actions.  Some seem decidedly embarassed.  The promo from ENO promises a “richly romantic and fantastical score,” but the fine orchestra as conducted by Leo Hussain delivers a sound as tedious, grey, and soulless as Alden’s production.

Didn’t anyone in administration have the sense to say, “No”?  The entire production and design staff should be ashamed.

…Sorry – One more.

SIMON BOCCANEGRA at the ENO is equally as gray as the MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM.  I guess when one modernizes an opera, it’s “hip” if it’s black, white, and gray, and one cannot possibly pick the leads out in any crowd scene.  Someone mentioned that the set looked like a “job center in Lewisham.”  This is not a complement, and I agree with it totally.  The famed Council Chamber Scene is reduced to a disjointed mob scene without any of the grandeur it demands.  I don’t even want to go into why Boccanegra ends up with a folded newspaper “hat” on his head.  What a farce this production is!

Ah well…  Now I am getting off the soapbox.  I need a rest.