The San Francisco Opera season came thudding to a close with a coarse, drab revival of one of my favorite operas, The Marriage of Figaro. I should point out that I saw the second cast (but if your marketing slogan is The Return of the Divas, shouldn’t there be fine print somewhere that says “except for Subscription Series G”?). I was sorry to miss Swenson as the Countess and particularly Relyea as Figaro, but usually I’m open to second casts; although I may not believe that a stranger is just a friend I haven’t met, I’m perfectly willing to believe that an alternate is a star just needing a break. In any event none of the singers particularly thrilled me, though all were good enough, even though the ensemble sounded off to me at several points.
And it wasn’t really the Opera’s fault that this was one of those evenings when I was surrounded by talkers (not whisperers – talkers). “Is that the Countess?” “Yes, that’s the Countess! There she is!” “And this is her first song?” “Yes! She’s singing it!” (dialogue not retouched for satirical purposes). Of course none of these observations, or any of the others I was treated to, could possibly wait until after the opera was over, possibly because it ended so late it would be difficult to remember that far back. Yes, after a brief lapse into reality which led the Opera to start Maid of Orleans (under three hours) at 7:30, they went back to presenting the almost-four-hour-long Marriage of Figaro at 8:00. I think that people who claim they can’t follow the garden shenanigans in Act IV are really just too tired by then to pay attention. (Does anyone else want to punch Cherubino in that scene, or at least send him for some “no means no” sensitivity training?) Even half an hour makes an enormous difference, but apparently the Opera feels that Mrs. Vanderbilt’s carriage can’t quite rumble up the walk before 8:00 and that anyone else who might be tired out from a week of work is probably an Irishman or some other sort of undesirable ethnic, who would be better off in a tavern or other low haunt, or at home beating his common-law wife and their thirteen grubby children.
You could certainly make an argument that Figaro is one of those operas that needs to be set in a very specific time and place (what with ordering the neighbor boy to join the military, let alone the whole “right of the first night” – another plot point that led to an extended discussion during the performance), though in that case it’s not clear to me why this production sets Act I not in a nice room conveniently located near the Count and Countess but instead in what is very obviously an open inner courtyard; it’s even less clear why all the characters have to behave in a way in which no human being has ever behaved outside of exhausted vaudeville sketches. Any moment of subterfuge (of which there are many) is accompanied by winks and grimaces and blinks that would tip off Helen Keller, but go completely unnoticed by the other party; all older women are rapacious man-eaters; stuttering is comedy gold; the mere sight of a chamber pot is not only comedy gold, but comedy gold covered with diamonds; any unwashed person (even better, an unwashed person who also has liquor on his breath – enter Antonio the gardener) causes everyone, even an aristocratic Spanish lady of a delicately melancholy disposition, to rear back in eye-rolling, hand-waving, gasping recoil. (This is the production, not the cast, and definitely not the opera; in fact I have to give credit to Twyla Robinson, who sang the Countess, for trying for some delicacy in portraying the attraction to Cherubino; when I saw this production a few years ago the woman singing the Countess gave a performance of unbelievable vulgarity, swooning and drooling over Cherubino in a way that rendered her protestations of innocence absurd and her forgiveness of the Count ridiculous and hypocritical. Yes, I know about La Mere Coupable, and I wish directors didn’t; that’s later in their lives, after she’s had to forgive more indiscretions and Cherubino has grown up some. In Marriage of Figaro he’s a boy who thinks he’s a man and she’s a woman who thinks he’s a cute boy – if she really took him seriously, she wouldn’t keep dressing him up like a girl; it’s a very delicately ironic relationship, which is why this heavy-handed production has to turn it into a Desperate Housewives moment that would presumably shock the “realism”-loving audience if they bothered to consider how old Cherubino actually is.)
Apparently many in the opera audience, not having been to any theatrical productions postdating the replacement of gaslights with electricity, eat this stuff up, but here’s what really bugs me about this production: if this had been announced as a vaudeville/Looney Tunes concept production there would have been predictable cries of outrage and further calls for the public execution of Pamela Rosenberg, but the only thing they would have had to change would be to brighten and simplify the sets, and maybe tone down some of the mugging. OK, Chuck Jones actually would have come up with better gags, but I stand by my point. Apparently there were sighs of relief at this “traditional” production; who was it who said tradition is just encrusted error?
About twenty years ago in Boston I saw Peter Sellar’s Marriage of Figaro, usually described as the “Trump Tower” production (the only one of his three da Ponte/Mozart operas that I saw on stage). The setting did create some incongruities (for instance, ordering the neighbor boy to join the military). And I disagreed with the decision to have the Count manhandle the Countess (to me his actions conveyed not aristocratic entitlement but bullying, and made him too unsympathetic), but it was a carefully thought-through decision, not one made for some spurious shock value, and although I disagreed with it I had to clarify in my mind why I disagreed and how I thought his behavior worked in the piece. In short, Sellars re-thought the relationships among the characters as if they were people with real emotions (I still think about his remark that Marzellina is obviously a lonely older woman looking for love and emotional connections, which is why she can switch so quickly from wanting to be Figaro’s wife and hating Susanna to being his mother and Susanna’s too), and that is why I remember the production so well after two decades.
(I had seen this production and this was my opinion before I heard of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson’s death, but I have to say, this is exactly the kind of – I was going to say dessicated shit, but instead I’ll say stale routine – that she would never, ever have appeared in.)