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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Opera Review: They're Goin' Back to Cali

¡Figaro! (90210) bows at The Duke on 42nd Street.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Susanna (Samarie Alicea) admires her new wedding bonnet as Figaro (José Adán Perez)
enthuses about their new apartment in ¡Figaro! (90210) at Tthe Duke on 42nd St.
Photo by Ken Howard.
Attempts to update the Mozart-Da Ponte operas to a modern setting have often met with mixed results. One may remember Peter Sellars' Cosí fan tutte set in a diner, or the 2009 City Opera production of Don Giovanni that moved the entire opera to a funeral home. This week, the Duke on 42nd Street welcomed the Broadway premiere of ¡Figaro! (90210), which transports the madcap events of The Marriage of Figaro at a nouveau riche dream palace in Beverly Hills, California.

Directed by Melissa Crespo, this show sets a brand-new libretto to Mozart's music, drawing from both the original play by Beaumarchais and the libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte. The new book, (by Vid Guerrerio) is in English, Spanish and "Spanglish", that salty mixture of tongues that has developed en las calles of urban Latino communities. (Sung phonetically, it sounds remarkably like Da Ponte's Italian text!) Mr. Guerrerio interjects social commentary here and there, but captures the spirited wit that made the original play so controversial. In his version, Figaro (José Adán Perez) is a bluff, genial handyman and Susanna (Samarie Alicea) a saucy chicana maid. Both are illegal immigrants, and their status is the tool by which their employer, Mr. Conti strives to control the former and bed the latter.

The freewheeling spirit of Mozart's opera is very much present at the opening, which finds  Figaro and enthusiastic (and Susanna less so) about the "Mr. Conti"'s plan to move the couple into his pool house to save on their daily commute. (The famous "Din! Din!", "Don! Don!" becomes the ringtone of cell phones summoning the couple to work.) The action starts from here, as the stage transforms into poolside apartment, the inner chambers of the house and the garden for the final scene. The arias mostly stayed in the same place, although the third act suffered heavy cuts and the melting "Deh vieni, non tardar" is moved to a sort of appendix, serving as an aural dessert and an informal encore for Ms. Alicea.

Figaro's nuptial plans runs afoul of Mr. Paul Conti (the Count Almaviva, embodied by handsome baritone Luke Scott) a hotelier who fancies himself a lothario. Mr. Guerrerio's libretto does not spare the lash here, portraying the Count as a reformed liberal backsliding into Republicanism for his own selfish reasons. In his corner are factory owner Ms. Soon-Yi Nam (Marcellina, played by Sahoko Sato Timpone) and Babayan (Dr. Bartolo, payed by Ethan Herschenfeld.) The latter is an Armenian mob enforcer in flashy jewelry and a tracksuit, with a particularly powerful, mellifluous bass. The Act Three quintet is a definite highlight.

You can't have Figaro (in any form) without its heroine, which brings us to the Countess. Here, she's Roxanne Conti, a faded Hollywood starlet with dreams of youth, trapped in a twenty-year marriage and spending money on B-Man's demo recordings and her own Botox procedures. Soprano Raquel Suarez-Groen navigated "Porgi, amor" and "Dove sono" with an instrument that turned sharp under pressure but captured the pathos of the character's loveless marriage. It should also be mentioned that this version gives the Contis a progeny, the depressed "goth" teen Barbara (Barbarina, sung by Emma Grimsley) who can't stand the fact that her parents send each other sexy texts.

Cherubino, the cross-dressing page is, in the Mozart opera  played by a mezzo in travesti. Here, the character is reworked as Bernard AKA "Lil B-Man", African-American son of Donna Curson, the Count's secretary. Dwayne A. Washington sings the part with a pleasing high tenor. Mr. Guerrerio reworks the page's two arias as cavatinas in hip-hop language, with "Non si píu" becoming an ode to the female anatomy that would make Sir Mix-A-Lot blush. Later, "Voi chi sapete" becomes an attempt to woo Barbara in street language, which serves only to drive her away. Thankfully, the tune is reprised with toned-down language leading to a successful tryst in the final act.

Music director Raphael Fusco conducted the show from the pit, itself a sunken blue-tiled area at stage right meant to evoke the Conti swimming pool. He commanded a five-piece string orchestra that caught the whiplash nature of Mozart's writing even as his own fingers provided continuo and much of the wind and percussion texture in the score. This is a smart adaptation of a classic opera, and its scenes from the class struggle in Beverly Hills make a coherent and perhaps necessary social statement for these turbulent times.

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