Against the Grain Theatre reimagines Mozart’s 233-year-old work to resonate in our time.
Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro (Figaro’s Wedding). Bruno Roy (Figaro); Alexandra Smither (Susanna); Miriam Khalil (Rosina); Phillip Addis (Alberto); Lauren Eberwein (Cherubino); Gregory Finney (Bartolo/Antonio); Maria Soulis (Marcellina); Jacques Arsenault (Basilio). Rachael Kerr (Music Director/Pianist), String Quartet (Jennifer Murphy, Brenna Hardy-Kavanagh, Rory McLeod, Bryan Holt). Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, December 11, 2019.
Known for its edgy and unconventional take on the standard repertoire, Against the Grain Theatre scored a triumph in 2013 with its fresh take on Mozart’s venerable The Marriage of Figaro. I saw it at the time and thought it was refreshing and certainly enjoyable. It was with much anticipation that I attended a revival of this show.
Perhaps a “rewrite” is a better term to describe this second edition than a “revival.” I spoke with a few friends who saw the original, and we agreed that this reincarnation is so different from the already excellent original that it’s nearly unrecognizable. I think the trick is in a clever staging and direction — when it’s done judiciously and with imagination, the old standards can come alive in any era.
A singular advantage this time around is the performing space. The Enoch Turner Schoolhouse is better suited to the drama, allowing for greater flexibility and creativity. Also, there was tweaking of the original, the most notable is the character of Cherubino, no longer a lovelorn boy but now a gay woman. The staging has also become raunchier, something that would have raised a few eyebrows not so long ago. But in the context of 2019, it makes a lot of sense.
Unlike the original Mozart, the “upstairs-downstairs” relationships between Figaro/Susanna and Count/Countess are replaced by interrelationships between two young couples, albeit one a well-to-do pair and the other pair financially struggling. Gone are the class issues and the master-servant dynamics. No more aristocracy — the Count and Countess are Alberto and Rosina in this production. Instead of bedroom and salons, parts of the drama take place in a bar.
As to “the wedding,” quite a lot of the details in the original are gone. The story is rewritten using a new English language libretto by Ivany. I confess that normally I’m not fond of operas not sung in the original language, but it works in this case. Ivany’s rewrite is convincing and dramatically apt for the 21st century. Some might consider it a touch too radical, but to my eyes and ears, it works.
The character of Barbarina has been cut, as well as the funny Act One duet between Susanna and Marcellina, part and parcel with the diminution of class differences inherent in the original. Perhaps the trickiest part of the rewrite is the whole business surrounding mistaken identities. Frankly, the use of mistaken identities in opera, from Don Giovanni to Adriana Lecouvreur, is never truly convincing. This is no exception. As they say, you can’t win them all!
Musically, it was a marvelous evening. The string players and the pianist Rachael Kerr did a terrific job, so much so that I (almost) didn’t miss the orchestra. The cast was exceptionally strong. Bruno Roy was an endearing Figaro, singing with warm tone and perfect English diction, and totally game when it came to the various comic antics, such as wearing a Santa outfit with a bare chest. Kudos to Phillip Addis as a beautifully sung and acted Almaviva/Count — the best I’ve heard him. Miriam Khalil as Rosina offered gorgeous tone albeit without the ideal high piano; her portrayal sympathetic, strong, resolute, and rightfully non-tragic.
Lyric soprano Alexandra Smither was an ideal Susanna in voice and in looks — I daresay this will become her signature role. The other women were equally outstanding — Lauren Eberwein an effervescent Cherubino, full of spunk and abandon; mezzo Maria Soulis played drunk scintillatingly, and managed to seize her moments in the sun despite having her duet cut. The character roles of Bartolo and Antonio were both taken superbly by that master comprimario, Gregory Finney. Tenor Jacques Arsenault was a spirited Basilio, here repurposed as the “wedding planner”!
What’s the verdict on this 2019 take on Classical Mozart? Cute? Unbearably cute. Clever and entertaining? Absolutely, judging by the amount of laughter from the audience. It was a truly fun evening. Does the rewrite make dramatic sense? Now, this is a harder question to answer. A lot depends on how literal one is and how much poetic license one is willing to accept. To a cynic, this show is quite gimmicky. But at the end of the day, it’s a reimagining of a 233-year-old work that resonates in our time.
Three more performances on Dec. 18, 19, 20. Details.