Mozart’s delightful Marriage of Figaro has been a perennial favorite, not only produced frequently by opera companies, but its material has been poured over, parsed, and mastered as part of any classical music training program and vocal studio. Hence, it’s understandable that The In Series might want a shot at mining this rich composer’s trove of arias as a showcase for developing singers as well as re-conceptualizing a new way into producing the work.
The In Series has been all about updating itself with its new Artistic Director Timothy Nelson, who stepped in to fill the role of departing Founding Artistic Director Carla Hubner. The company made quite the successful splash earlier this Fall with a music-theatre invention, a mostly imagined end-of-life struggle of Giuseppi Verdi trying to complete an unfinished operatic work, his own reimagining of King Lear.
When Nelson stepped out on stage in Harlequin stockinged-feet and tight pants with a blond spiked hair-do going on, I was thrilled to think how a new Millennial leader would put his stamp on things. I hoped that maybe we were all going to be shaken up in an exciting way.
Nelson’s theatrical evening blending Mozart’s Figaro with T.S. Eliot’s poetry, titles Mozart’s Figaro in Four Quartets, promised to be a sleight-of-hand bit of theater magic. Seated in Gala Hispanic Theatre’s charmed space, I thought the setting would be theatrically stimulating for In Series as it reinvents itself with each of its shows this season in a different locale.
The simple use of a series of screens both for silhouette effect and Gus Mostart’s video installation, projections of trees, flowers, and weather for different seasons, was most effective.
However, Nelson’s mash-up of music and poetry was not only baffling but the two forms, rather than complement as in a dialogue, worked against each other. It didn’t help that for the first ten minutes of the show, the actor speaking Eliot’s verse was having microphone difficulties and could not be heard over the orchestra. This will be certainly fixed on subsequent nights, but I wish I had been given a greater handle on Brian J. Shaw’s character, who, as The Poet, mostly lurked on the side of the stage, lounging by a pile of books and looking a little moonstruck while delivering Eliot’s gorgeous but densely philosophical lines.
I think the greater issue was that the poetry often came on the heels of the singing, even to the point of interrupting, and I mean the feeling was jarring as in coitus interruptus jarring. The audience was not given a chance to take in the arias (or for that matter applaud the singers.) There was no space for each piece, poetry or song, to breathe.
Moreover, Nelson’s intention to move the musical numbers around from the opera to affect a new order based on the theme of the four seasons (and the seasons of life) created a barrier to understand what was being thrown out and what was kept of the original relationships and story. (My companion, who didn’t know the opera or story, was lost and expressed curiosity why the ‘two girls’ who seemed to be trying to get it on never did.)
Cherubino, a soprano’s ‘pants role’ in Mozart’s opera, who is meant to be a young giddy boy with raging hormones, becomes in this production, the focal point for Spring. (All Cherubino’s arias get compressed and delivered in this season.) Summer turns its focus on the fuller blossoming love through the recits and arias of Figaro and Susanna. The Count and the Countess get featured as the couple in an “autumnal relationship,” you might say. Well, you get the idea: the four couples in Mozart’s opera have been pulled out to represent four relationships, or perhaps even the same relationship, at different stages of life.
Mozart’s Figaro in Four Quartets
closes October 28, 2018
Details and tickets
The evening becomes not a story told through singing but a thematic recital of songs.
Complicating this even further, some arias were shared – to give the singers more to “cover?” So, for instance, Figaro’s somewhat playful aria to Cherubino, “Non piu andrai” was changed to a trio for the three baritones, who in this production seemed to be dominating and abusing the poor girl/boy. The conflation of the characters only further confounded comprehension.
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The choreography was more artifice than art. At the top of the piece, the eight performers made introductory appearances, all in white, and wafted on and off with little purpose. One character carried a white balloon, and all this made me wince in memory of the arty films with shots of fuzzy pastoral wanderings, often replete with mimes in white face, that were all the rage fifty years ago. Later, though hands, elbows and fingers touched and the company formed a circle and shuffled around, nothing amounted to what you might call a dance. It felt more like a ritual performed by amateurs attending and attempting a séance.
There was one fabulous dramatic moment when Mia Rojas as Susanna pushes her Figaro (Jim Williams) down on the ground. She jumps astride him and begins pounding him and pulling at his tie. They seemed to be in a real relationship, both going at each other, investing believably in their actions.
This is what audiences have come to expect in theater, even operatic theater. Too much of the acting on opening night was given more to generalized emotions and indicating.
There was a curious theme running through Nelson’s conception, or maybe I just imagined the company connecting the dots from Mozart’s characters and relationships to the #MeToo movement. The male characters, even Cherubino, harassed the ladies throughout. La Contessa, Suzanna, even Babarina and Marcellina had to push away the men’s repeated advances. But if this was meant as the through line, it all gets dropped and long forgotten/forgiven before the big octet finish.
There was some nice singing in the evening. Clearly, several performers represented some topnotch training. Some voices got a little tight in the high notes, and several voices were still developing warmth or lacked size. A couple of the men jumped the gun on entrances with the orchestra due, no doubt, to opening night nerves. But all this is part of the journey. Opera singing demands such complex coordination, and for it all to come together is something of a miracle. My hats off to Cara Gonzalez, Elizabeth Mondragon, Dawna Rae Warren, Teresa Ferrara, Bryan Jackson, Jim Williams, Mia Rojas, and Brody DelBeccaro for delivering this crazy-difficult musical art form so well.
Mozart’s Figaro in Four Quartets. Music by Amadeus Mozart. Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte. Additional Text by T.S. Eliot. Concept, Production, Directed, Conducted, and Music Direction by Timothy Nelson. With Cara Gonzalez, Elizabeth Mondragon, Mia Rojas, Dawna Rae Warren, Teresa Ferrara, Bryan Jackson, Jim Williams, Brody DelBeccaro, Brian J Shaw. Produced by The InSeries. Presented at the Gala Hispanic Theatre. Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.