Amid the slapstick of aristocrats stashed in packing crates to cheat the guillotine, flashbacks of the genteel antediluvian life signaled by opera singers popping up out of nowhere to sing Mozart and close-ups of those singers’ and comedians’ faces projected on a big screen from a camera in the wings, a wry concept seems to be taking shape from Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s Figaro, onstage at Berkeley Rep’s Roda Theatre.
The show is a melding of Beaumarchais’ original play and Mozart’s (and librettist Lorenzo da Ponte’s) opera with some stiffening from Beaumarchais’ lesser known third play, after The Barber of Seville and Marriage of Figaro, La Mere Coupable (Guilty Mother), all set in Paris, where Count Almaviva and his quondam barber, Figaro (now just Fig), are refugees from the revolutionary mobs.
The pair rehash their old man-and-his-man’s-man relationship, and the romantic intrigues they’ve shared, cueing effusions of Mozart’s music, as if to quote Talleyrand’s famous bon mot, used as epigraph by Bertolucci for his second feature film, “Noboby can know how sweet life can be unless they lived before the revolution.”
With the divine music sung wonderfully by the singers appearing by sleight-of-hand and projected on the big screen, the comedians (Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp, who also adapted the piece) show up in a flurry of sight gags cutting the reminiscences and tableaux, like the Countess (Jennifer Baldwin Peden) stretched out in a funeral boat, smothered in roses, bursting into song as Serrand slowly draws the boat around the stage. This composite, deliberately anachronistic image of memories of happiness ravaged by change, yet springing up anew, even through remorse, and of characters confronted by their own vanity, tantalizingly seems to be forming before our eyes, like the ghost of a ghost, phantom of memory and experience itself.
Unfortunately, the assemblage doesn’t cohere, as the Jeune Lunes’ ride on Mozart’s coattails reveals more disparity of intention and purpose than the sensational collage effects it tries to muster.
Mozart and da Ponte themselves realized what da Ponte claimed was a new kind of musical theater, at about the same time a new dramaturgy, pioneered by Diderot in France and Lessing in Germany, was being formulated of synaesthetic “tableaux” that Lessing called “pregnant moments,” images by which the whole picture, the tension and conflict of an entire play could be caught.
Musician and critic Charles Rosen validated da Ponte’s claim to a similar advance in opera, overcoming the old effects of “coup-de-theatre” in plot and music through a close marriage of text and music by use of sonata forms, constantly building and resolving conflict musically along with the shifts in dramatic focus.
Whenever the fine operatic singers and actors (Christina Baldwin, Baldwin Peden, Carrie Hennessey, Bryan Janssen, Momoko Tanno and Bryan Boyce and their alternates) appear—especially in the longer excerpts pasted into the second act, when the poetic structure, both musical and dramatic, can be sensed more fully—the anachronistic pastiche is refreshed by the original’s still astounding transparency, in which all manner of conflicting, even contradictory motives and actions are revealed (and studied) at once, yet still keep the freshness and humorous insouciance of opera buffa.
The insouciance and simultaneity of what Epp and Serrand try to do is something else again, not a montage, but just a pastiche that attempts to pair unlike elements into an ungainly happy synthesis. There’s no sense of montage here, just a kind of willy-nilly slopping together and dreary repetition.
What starts out fresh—the sudden appearances of the singers from a soon-overworked trick bed (no stage magician would ever beat dead horsehair like that for an effect) or the abrupt skittering of actors and singers across the stage—is repeated ad nauseum, providing neither compliment nor contrast to the miraculous marriage of music and text in the opera.
When the singers are in the camera’s eye, projected on screen, it makes sense, matching what Rosen identifies as another key feature of the opera’s innovatory invention: duos and trios advancing the story, not recitivo filling in.
When the camera focuses on Epp in his endless way-behind-the-beat expository reminiscences and routines in close-up, it defeats the purpose of being paired as a reflection of its original, like the talking heads in PBS opera programs that are the death of the surprising 220-year-old spontaneity of da Ponte and Mozart’s accomplishment.
(A better example of how to draw from such masters would be Ingmar Bergman’s film Hour of the Wolf, based on inverting the story of ‘The Magic Flute’—though Bergman only shows a scene from the original, with ironic commentary, as a creepy puppet show.)
Given Epp and Serrand’s errant direction, as if they were slipping on hidden banana peels while doing their adaptation, drawing attention to their own antics after capturing the audience with rivetting operatics, the play should be retitled Figaro & Me.
Bradley Greenwald’s musical adaptation, a “miniaturization” for a chamber group, and that group’s playing, prove to be fine.
Postmodern critical theory discusses irony and longing at great length. Here, the longing is over-attenuated and the irony is anachronistic: It is a pre-revolutionary opera, in which Mozart and da Ponte made high art from something approaching farce or burlesque, which refreshes our tired postmodern stage conventions.