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Opera Carolina freshens up ‘Figaro'

March 05, 2009

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    March 05, 2009
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    Opera Carolina News

Opera Carolina freshens up ‘Figaro'

When last we saw Figaro, he had just helped a young nobleman succeed in love. That was in Opera Carolina's January production of “The Barber of Seville.” Figaro himself will be the lucky man when the curtain rises Saturday on Mozart's “The Marriage of Figaro.”

Like the ever-popular “Barber,” “Marriage of Figaro” is based on a comedy by the French playwright Beaumarchais. Its story is a full-fledged sequel to “Barber,” putting the same leading characters into a new set of comic situations. This being Mozart, they gain new emotional depth as well.

Opera Carolina's staging will add another fresh ingredient: a theatrical setup that will put the singers where the audience can practically reach out and touch them.

Overactive libido

In “Figaro,” the quick-thinking barber has gone to work in Count Almaviva's castle. The count is married to Rosina, the sweetheart he won in “Barber,” but his eye is already wandering. Rosina, so high-spirited in “Barber,” is now a countess who endures her husband's philandering quietly – at least until she thinks of a way to teach him a lesson.

Alongside them, two new characters have come onto the scene. Figaro has landed a fiancee, Susanna. The page Cherubino, a teenage boy portrayed by a woman, injects a second overactive libido into the story – as if the count's skirt-chasing weren't enough. You see, the count wants to get his hands on Figaro's fiancee. When Figaro catches on, the story takes off.

Simple, catchy tunes

In “Figaro,” Mozart doesn't ask for the vocal acrobatics that Rossini demands of the singers in “Barber.” In many ways, Mozart's music is made of uncomplicated ingredients, notes Opera Carolina's general director, James Meena, who will conduct. The tunes and harmonies are mostly simple.

“But there's nothing simplistic about what Mozart does with them,” Meena says.

A few of the arias are as direct and catchy as folk songs. After the count orders Cherubino into the army to get him out of the way, Figaro's goodbye to him ends Act 1 with a tune that could hardly be better designed to send the audience out humming.

Simple and brilliant

Out of such modest building blocks, Mozart creates one of the marvels of 18th-century opera: the Act 2 finale, where the comic maneuvering comes fast and furious. The count thinks he has caught a troublemaker red-handed, but he opens a door to find someone he doesn't expect. The count's gardener appears with papers that spell trouble for Figaro. A woman bursts onstage making the claim that Figaro promised to marry her.

Mozart underscores every twist and turn in a burst of about 20 minutes of unbroken music – which was practically unprecedented at the time. Part of the excitement, Meena notes, comes in the most fundamental way: The number of singers onstage keeps growing.

“It's so simple,” Meena says, “that it's brilliant.”

Nontraditional performance

Opera Carolina's staging of “Figaro” will hark back to the thrust-stage setup more typical in spoken theater.

“I think there's going to be an immediacy that you just don't get in traditional performances,” Meena says.

The orchestra will be uprooted from the Belk Theater's pit, which will be raised so that its floor becomes an extension of the stage. That's where much of the action will take place – maybe five feet, Meena notes, from the viewers in the front row.

The cast will be fully decked out in costumes, wigs and makeup. But there won't be sets in the traditional sense, only furniture as needed. Platforms at the rear of the stage will give the action a second place to unfold. Between those two staging areas will sit the orchestra.

Practicality involved

The streamlined staging has a couple of side benefits, Meena notes. Whereas a “Figaro” with full-fledged sets typically needs three intermissions – because of set changes – the opera works this way with only one. That makes for a shorter night.

There's also a financial advantage. Opera Carolina won't have to truck in a set from outside, or hire stagehands for the performances, Meena says. That will save about $80,000 – “which in this environment is really important.”

“To do something that is artistically credible,” he adds, “and will have this kind of effect on our budget – we'd be foolish not to do it.”

By Steven Brown
sbrown@charlotteobserver.com