BWW Review: Au Revoir, Figaro, GUILTY as Charged from On Site Opera
Well, three cheers for On Site Opera, for completing its trilogy of works based on Beaumarchais' 18th century "Figaro" plays and digging deep into the repertoire to deliver some lesser known works. First, a BARBIERE DI SIVIGLIA not by Rossini (theirs, by Paisiello) and then a FIGARO not by Mozart (instead, Marcos Portugal). This week, they presented the American premiere, in partnership with the Darius Milhaud Society, of Milhaud's LA MERE COUPABLE (THE GUILTY MOTHER), based on the least known and, to some, the unknown, among the Beaumarchais plays.
In many ways, the production from the company's General & Artistic Director Eric Einhorn was a triumph, being presented creatively in The Garage, an old piano factory on the far West Side of midtown, now owned by designer Kenneth Cole. (The space-shifting locations were carved out by scenographer Cameron Anderson, with lighting by Shawn K. Kaufman and costumes by Beth Goldenberg.)
The opera, which debuted in 1966, was orchestrated by Nicholas DeMaison for chamber orchestra; it was performed here by the International Contemporary Ensemble (ICE) under the nuanced leadership of OSO's music director Geoffrey MacDonald, as if the difficult music were mother's milk. And the cast of singing actors couldn't have been better, though they were mostly deprived of much that sounded like an aria by Milhaud and his librettist, wife, Madeleine Milhaud.
Still, baritone Marcus DeLoach and mezzo Marie Lenormand sang lustily and conspired well as Figaro and Suzanne (Mozart's Susanna), while the luxurious soprano of Jennifer Black and smartly sung baritone Adam Cannedy were the Almavivas. Amy Owens' gleaming soprano made for a scene-stealing Florestine (the ward, but really illegitimate daughter, of the Count).
Bass-baritone Matthew Burns made a strong-voiced, nasty Bergearss, a conniving Tartuffe-like character, who tries to enrich his own coffers by lying and cheating. (The full title of Beaumarchais's play is THE GUILTY MOTHER OR THE OTHER TARTUFFE.) Rounding out the cast was bass Christian Zaremba in a nice turn as Fal, the notary. (Tenor Andrew Owens, as the would-be Almaviva scion, Leon, but actually fathered by the now-dead Cherubin, Mozart's Cherubino, was felled by allergies and--with no cover--forced to kind-of save the day by whispering his role.)<
COUPABLE's source material was a poor third in quality to BARBIERE and FIGARO. As was said of one of Broadway's Neil Simon's most insubstantial works, "He didn't have a play to write this year, but he wrote one anyway." After the success of the first two Figaro plays, the public pleaded for another; the author, afraid someone else would take up the challenge if he didn't, churned this one out, with references aplenty to the series' other entries. (Even Milhaud called it "an endless play in five acts.")
For example, Florestine is Almaviva's ward, as Rosina was to Bartolo in LE BARBIER DE SEVILLE; Almaviva quips that "no one will be able to distinguish a nobleman from a student," as he was disguised also in LE BARBIER; the recognition scene, where Florestine and Leon discover that they are not blood relatives and can, thus, be married, recalls the scene where Marcelline and Bartolo are discovered to be Figaro's parents in LE MARIAGE DE FIGARO, and so on.
But the opera might have gotten away with the thinness and confusion of its plot if the music had been less talky and more varied in style. In effect, it seems almost an endless repetitif, with little effort to bring out character or advance the plot. That's not to say that it was an unpleasant experience--I found it rather enjoyably mesmerizing--but compared to the other operatic treatments of the plays (including John Corigliano's GHOSTS OF VERSAILLES, which drew on aspects of the COUPABLE play), one was left wanting more.
Still, one can't accuse On Site Opera of producing "the same old thing" with THE GUILTY MOTHER--this, after their lovely SECRET GARDENER by Mozart earlier this season. Eventually, I hope they find that their archeological expeditions into opera-land uncover some undiscovered gem--that Holy Grail for opera lovers everywhere.
On Site Opera's next production will be RHODA AND THE FOSSIL HUNT, a world premiere site-specific opera for families, with music by John Musto & libretto by Eric Einhorn. Co-commissioned & co-produced with Lyric Opera of Chicago's Lyric Unlimited & Pittsburgh Opera and created in partnership with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, it will premiere in fall 2017 in the Hall of Saurischian Dinosaurs at the museum.