Love, marriage, text messaging and all that Mozart

Figaros Wedding--Photo by Roger Rousseau

Figaro’s WeddingWA Mozart. The original libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte translated and adapted by Joel Ivany. Score adapted for the piano quintet by the music director + pianist in the show, Christopher Mokrzewski. Stage director Joel Ivany. With Music in the Barns Chamber Ensemble. June 2nd is the last show, so get your INFO.

I have never seen Toronto theatre audiences this lively at a show. Grown men of the stiff, WASP, middle class variety behaving as if in a Baptist church service, yelling “Preach it, Figaro!” to Stephen Hegedus’s Figaro in the middle of a comedic complaint about the female sex. Booze drinking on stage and in the audience. A City Hall-related crack joke that first got an “Ooh”, then murmurs as the aisle after aisle twigged the joke, and finally an applause of solidarity. People didn’t mind being touched, or having their hands shaken and a couple of women in the aisle seats didn’t object to being sung to by a very Sapphic Cherubino.

I am listing all this to say that, in spite of my missing the Italian libretto very much last night, this transladaptation of Da Ponte’s libretto by Joel Ivany worked some kind of magic to get the famously sedate audience (the mandatory curtain call standing Os notwithstanding) really involved in a performance. It can’t have been an easy task, coming up with poetic, intelligent, funny ways to say serious things about contemporary life in Toronto (class strife and love tangles included) and have the right number of singable syllables with the right vowels for each of the set pieces. The recitatives are all removed, and a completely new dialogue created in its place, but the set pieces are kept and had to be reworked. Occasionally the words don’t say a whole lot, but it doesn’t matter, the transladaptation works well because it directly and easily engages people (even if it would not read particularly exciting on page). Even I, a text jihadist, was willing to forego the text in exchange of what I witnessed: a rarely seen degree of engagement of an operatic audience. I am not saying it is either/or – the ultra-sophisticated text and the audiences going wild can coincide. But I think that due to the decades of pop music hegemony and other factors, the audience is likelier to go wild with a simpler text and lines that are easy to follow.

Singing in English often also needs its own surtitles, but here everybody had lines so well defined and clearly sung that everything was perfectly comprehensible. Which is another rarity. Then there is the comedic nature of the work that further removed the obstacles to audience engagement. All the scenes, but the inevitably comedy-resistant two solo arias by the Countess (Lisa DiMaria gets the hardest task), did have the type of contemporary humour that works well with today’s audiences. The idea to turn the Count to Figaro’s boss and simply call him Alberto was the good first thing out of which many other solutions followed. Cherubino (Teiya Kasahara) is a student tenant in the Almaviva household, bent on exploring sexuality in the big city. She has a serious thing for the Countess (here only called Rosina, of course), who is not entirely adverse to the idea. When Alberto (Alexander  Dobson) starts suspecting that there’s something happening there, he asks ‘Bino to leave their house and find another place.  The “Non piu andrai farfallone amoroso” aria that Figaro sings to Cherubino before the Count sends him away to the military becomes here an aria about the necessity of finding a job. Hegedus sings about scrubbing toilets, picking up garbage and various other pleasant occupations, and Kasahara and Hegedus are funny as hell in this.

Figaros Wedding--Cherubino--Photo by Darryl Block

Ivany also found incredibly imaginative ways to incorporate smart phones, text messages and phone cameras in the story. A photo of Alberto getting a little too close and personal with Susanna (Miriam Khalil) that Cherubino captures on her smart phone becomes essential to the plot. Instead of the letter to the Count to meet her in the garden after the ceremony, Rosina dictates a text message which is to be sent from Susanna’s phone. “Canzonetta sul aria” duettino is sung as Susanna is typing the text reluctantly into her phone and Rosina gently insisting and honing the phrasing. Such a joy. (Susanna and Rosina are close friends, and just like in the original opera, build solidarity across the boundaries of class much more easily than their other halves.)

Cherubino is – finally a production with no equivocating — a cute baby dyke who has the butch aesthetic down to a T. Kesahara’s ‘Bino is also the funniest character in the group, even funnier than the very funny Figaro by Hegedus and Khalil’s Susanna. Cherubino is not a token queer character – it’s a live, sexual, three dimensional (and all three dimensions funny) character obviously brought to life by the creative team who know the urban queer cultures well. Plus,‘Bino is the one who gets the most passionate kiss of the many kisses on stage.

What about the singing, you ask? Nothing at all to complain about there. Khalil found a perfect tone for Susanna: not quite the saint of the original version, but not quite the bridezilla either, this Susanna is the right mix of goodness and pre-nuptial self-centredness. It helps that Khalil can do funny too, and it’s a low-key, knowing funny, rather than the ham funny. Hegedus and Dobson both sung well and have pretty baritone colours;  Hegedus played Figaro as a sweet emo with nerdy moments, and Dobson kept the Boss oblivious and self-righteous, more Office than a bully.

The score reduction to the piano plus the string quartet by the AtG’s music director Christopher Mokrzewski is faithful to the original and gorgeous to listen to. There were serious problems of coordination in Act 1 within the quartet which sounded discombobulated, but they warmed up and when at their smoothest managed to blend in with the drama and propel the action forward without letting you notice that anything (i.e. the orchestra!) was missing. There are many trios and other collective singing during which the singers are spread to the furthest reaches of the room, and those were always delivered in fine coordination — credits to Topher. He, of course, was at the piano playing in his customary energetic and entertaining way.

The very last performance, with very few tickets left, is on June 2. The way the tickets have been going could mean that the AtG might revive the show in not too distant future.

Figaros Wedding1--Photo by Darryl BlockI am predictable but I simply had to:

Figaros Wedding2--Photo by Darryl BlockTop photo with Dobson, Khalil and Kasahara is by Roger Rousseau. Other three photos are by Darryl Block: Kasahara in the middle photo; Kasahara, DiMaria, Khalil, Gregory Finney, Hegedus and Dobson in the wedding scene; and DiMaria and Kasahara in the final photo.

3 thoughts on “Love, marriage, text messaging and all that Mozart

  1. Saw this last night and loved every moment. The thing that will stick with me the most is the absolutely intense concentration and connection I saw between audience members and the cast. WAY more than one ever notices in more conventional spaces where one tends to hear opera. Now, of course, in a venue like this one that’s inevitable, but I think it also had a lot to do with Ivany’s brilliant “transladaptation” [like that!] which commanded our attention. I know it’s a huge debate (opera in the original language vs. language of the people) but every now and then, it’s really good for us anglophones to hear an opera usually sung in a foreign language… in our own tongue. That’s how most of the original audiences would have heard these things and it’s a good reminder that opera is supposed to be about a direct communication of the text to the audience without the intermediary of a translation (read, surtitles – great invention, wouldn’t want to be without them but…). What also made this adaptation so brilliant is the fact that the “updatings” to the text were consistent throughout and never seemed like an intrusion. This was very different than the random introduction of a cellphone or computer to an otherwise “authentic” text which is often jarring and annoying. Finally, everyone sang wonderfully but I think Lisa DiMaria deserves a special mention – her renditions of Rosina’s two arias (notorious among soprano circles for being well, kind of deadly difficult!) were things of beauty; hardly belying their challenges. I hope AtG can get some more mileage out of this huge project – either a local revival or a tour of some sort?

    1. >>>WAY more than one ever notices in more conventional spaces where one tends to hear opera.<<<

      EXACTLY. Some sort of magic happened there — opera felt as intimate as pop or jazz to the people there. It's a huge accomplishment.

  2. “Magical” Mozart and what a magical evening of singing, acting, directing and conducting! Joel is brilliant and his adaptation of the libretto to English is equally brilliant! Toronto you are so lucky to have AtGT company in your city!!! Bravo tutti!

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