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‘FIGARO’ BACKSTAGE: Lyric production bids farewell to its home of four decades

The Lyric Opera’s new production of The Marriage of Figaro is well-sung, confidently acted and executed with a deft comic touch. Whether or not you buy into its conceit of setting the opera as a contemporary backstage drama, the production is at least consistent—at times relentlessly so—in its transfer of Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s 18th-century master-servant conflict to that of a modern management-labor structure. Instead of a Count and Countess we get the managing director of an opera company and his high-maintenance diva wife (who is referred to only as Rosina throughout). Figaro becomes a stage manager, Susanna is the costume mistress and Cherubino is a Justin Bieber-like apprentice singer.

Much of the action is set “backstage”: R. Keith Brumley’s cleverly designed uniset for the combined Acts 1 and 2 includes Figaro’s office, Rosina’s dressing room and the famous “closet” where Cherubino and Susanna hide. Cherubino escapes Rosina’s dressing room not into a garden but into the theater parking lot, setting off a car alarm. A great deal of text is altered to set up the conceit: References to servants are changed to “workers,” Figaro’s Se vuol ballare signor contino becomes “signor padrone,” and tutto Siviglia conosce Bartolo becomes “all Missouri knows Bartolo.”  What the company is calling “a valentine to the Lyric Theatre” is, on the whole, a cleverly conceived farewell to the company’s home since 1970, before it moves into the new Kauffman Center this fall.

Upon entering the theater one is greeted by a huge banner over the curtain that reads Tosca—and sure enough, the opera begins with the final scene of Puccini’s opera, seen from the backstage point of view, with the diva tumbling onto the famous mattress and being helped up by stagehands. Figaro is then seen measuring his office for the union-dictated cot rather than a marriage bed. And on it goes. If it begins at times to look a bit like “inside baseball”—with gags that only those who have worked in the theater would really “get”—it mostly clicks, chiefly because of director Mark Streshinsky’s knack for the comedic. Thus the first finale draws considerable laughter for the way in which it crams seven characters into the stage manager’s tiny office stage right, then sends them across the stage to Rosina’s even tinier closet (à la the “stateroom scene” in the Marx Brothers’ A Night at the Opera).

Andrew Gangestad was an affecting Figaro, vocally compelling and showing off a barely contained comic mirth throughout. Sari Gruber as a saucy Susanna showed herself to be a fine singing actress with a clear, straightforward soprano. If one missed a strong bond between the two, at least each carved out a strong individual persona. Troy Cook sang the Director with well-defined officiousness, his pleasing if smallish baritone ringing with bronze hues in its upper range but becoming light at the bottom. Katie Van Kooten as Rosina had the strongest voice in the cast, not just in terms of power but also in affect and multi-dimensionality. Her “Porgi, amor” and “Dove sono” were both high points. Brenda Patterson sang the trouser role of Cherubino with a strong sense of phrasing and line; her “Voi che sapete” was, however, one moment in which the camp element went overboard, with boy-band gestures that clashed with Mozart’s gentle lyricism. In Acts 3 and 4 she looked spookily like Mr. Bieber, to comic effect. Especially strong among the other singers were Korby Myrick as an overbearing Marcelinna, Heather Phillipsas haughty Barbarina and Thomas Hammons as a meddlesome Bartolo.

The Kansas City Symphony under Ward Holmquist’s direction was mostly reliable, some jitters from the winds notwithstanding. An overloud harpsichord made for odd balances in recitatives, and the supertitles got a bit off a couple of times. Michael Baumgarten’s lighting design was savvy throughout: He lit the backstage chambers with warm hues that made them seem more inviting than one might expect, and the sudden appearance of Rosina in silhouette at the end of Act 4 added to the strikingly climactic finale. Mark’s direction kept the combined Acts 3 and 4 moving like a well-oiled machine, enhanced by Mary Traylor’sstrongly delineated and at times jauntily whimsical costume designs.

Figaro is not a pure comedy, though, and many of its more serious—even sinister—elements are defined by the wanton power that the 18th-century feudal aristocracy wielded over its servants. The transfer of this opera to a modern backstage farce removed this stark delineation between classes and consequently diminished, for me, much of the opera’s deeper impact. Yet taken on its own terms, the Lyric production mines a rich lode of comedy that is very much in the spirit of this peerless opera buffa.

Paul Horsley, Performing Arts Editor 

Paul studied piano and musicology at WSU and Cornell University. He also earned a degree in journalism, because writing about the arts in order to inspire others to partake in them was always his first love. After earning a PhD from Cornell, he became Program Annotator for the Philadelphia Orchestra, where he learned firsthand the challenges that non profits face. He moved to KC to join the then-thriving Arts Desk at The Kansas City Star, but in 2008 he happily accepted a post at The Independent. Paul contributes to national publications, including Dance Magazine, Symphony, Musical America, and The New York Times, and has conducted scholarly research in Germany, Austria and the Czech Republic (the latter on a Fulbright Fellowship). He also taught musicology at Cornell, LSU and Park University.

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