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Figaro/Figaro … and More Figaro

by Karen Tortora-Lee on March 12, 2009

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Ralph Petrarca  Photo courtesy Ryan Baxter

Cherubino: Kathryn Lawson / Susanna: Gillian Wiggin / Count Almaviva: Ralph Petrarca Photo courtesy Ryan Baxter

I’ve loved the opera since I was a little girl; my parents had a pair of season tickets to the Met since I was twelve and I’d go whenever the seats were offered to me. Aside from the time I was sixteen and my friend and I ditched La Boheme to go shoe shopping on 8th Street instead (hey, I was SIXTEEN!), I always looked forward to going to the Opera no matter what was playing.  I’ve seen all the big ones several times over, and when I wasn’t at the actual opera with one of my parents I was watching it on PBS, or listening to records that popped and hissed with overuse (yes, that’s how it was back then).  “How did that get in there?” I said, frozen in fear in the middle of Kings Plaza when the bag I was trying to pass off as crammed full of Donna Summer records was discovered to actually be filled with the likes of Renata Scotto Sings Verdi and Madama Butterfly highlights by my sixth grade “cool” friend.  It was a Lisa Simpson moment before Lisa Simpson even existed.

When the movie Amadeus came out I was transfixed; it was the first movie I bought on VHS and I watched it so often that I can do entire scenes word for word.  So it’s no wonder that The Marriage of Figaro is dear to my heart.  I’ve seen both the traditional version as well as the Peter Sellars version (set in the Trump Tower).  So when I heard that Figaro/Figaro was being done I was intrigued; Eric Overmyer’s Figaro/Figaro is an adaptation of Pierre Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro (the same play upon which the opera is based) and Odon von Horvath’s Figaro Gets a Divorceor rather Figaro läßt sich scheiden; the original play was written in German.  To me it sounded like it would all play out as a dark fairy tale; Cinderella when reality set in  …

In this case, our Cinderella is Susanna (Gillian Wiggin), as lovely a maid as there every was, only in this tale she’s not shut up in a house with nasty step-sisters and only mice to keep her company, no … in the beautiful estate both the Count (Ralph Petrarca) and Countess (Amy Ludwigsen) Almaviva love her to bits, her betrothed, the playful, industrious, ambitious Figaro (Teddy Alvaro) finds her irresistible (PDA abounds) and even cunning little Court Page Cherubino (Kathryn Elisabet Lawson) can’t help but swoon at Susanna’s many charms, although Cherubino flirts with anything that passes him (her?) wearing a skirt.  At the opera the role of Cherubino is traditionally played by a woman and there’s a reason for that; the Cherubino part is written for a mezzo soprano.  Casting Ms. Lawson here, I think (to people unfamiliar with the opera) was a bit confusing and in a city of gifted young actors who just as easily could have fit the bill, somewhat unnecessary — especially when, as the night unfolded, it became obvious that this wasn’t going to be your father’s Figaro.

As the guilty-pleasure Gossip Girl has taught us, nothing is more interesting than watching rich people love and lose, their idleness gives them the luxury of being able to indulge in manipulation in a way that we working folk don’t get to explore … and the first act of Figaro/Figaro plays out like a hybrid of Scooby Doo and the Gossip Girl crew in hyper drive.  There’s hiding in closets, fumbling in the dark, mistaken identity, confused declarations of love, feigned virtue, tussles, bustles, and even a strolling band!  As much as I’d always known it was a comic opera, experiencing it speeded up and without four minute arias praising the beauty of a woman’s neck really drew attention to the fact that it’s very heavy on the Buffa and very light on reality.  Oh well, who cares!  All’s well that ends well!  Figaro! Susanna! Marriage! Hurrah!!!

…. Intermission …

So, in the ten minutes you have to regroup there’s no doubt you’re about to watch it all fall apart; the second act is, of course, called Figaro Gets a Divorce. It could also be called Figaro Loses his Sense of Fun, Susanna Loses her Sparkle, The Count Loses his Money and the Play Loses my Interest.  Look, I get the whole Comedy and Tragedy thing … and I even get how they can work together.  But not 45 minutes of pure folly followed by the MOST DEPRESSING two hours I’d ever seen played out before me.

Everything is in shambles.  The Count and Countess Almaviva take their faithful servants Susanna and Figaro and flee the country.  Then they proceed to lose their hope, their sense of time, their money, their health, their touch with reality, and their minds.  Living it up as if they’re still rich they move from one grand hotel to another, the Countess takes skating lessons while the Count gambles.  Figaro bemoans the fact that they left at all, Susanna bemoans the fact that he won’t have children with her (leaving her with “no purpose” … ahh, those old stereotypes just sound so cute nowadays, don’t they?) and they all bemoan the good ole first act when funny wigs and mistaken identity were all the rage.  But now they’re all stuck here in the second act, somehow in early 20th century apparel.  How’d that happen?  Well, no time for thinking about that now, we’ve got a Marriage to destroy.

Figaro and Susanna leave the Count and Countess so that Figaro can become a barber and Susanna can be his bitter shrew. We keep being told that time has skipped (“We’ve been married seven years” they say at one point, but soon “We’ve been married nine years …”) but somehow the 2nd act takes place in real time.  Reeeeeeeeeeeal Looooooooong Time. Long, joyless, preachy real-time.  Some of the happier comments Susanna and Figaro make to each other are “This place is killing me”, “We live in a time of mass destruction”, “You are death itself”  and my personal favorite “Après moi, le déluge” (“After me, the deluge”) which is a great Regina Spektor song but a lousy attitude with which to go through life Mister Figaro. There, I said it.

The one thing I did find compelling was how the Count and Countess Almaviva seemed to grow closer as they lost everything, and how Susanna and Figaro were living the exact opposite trajectory.  They may have made good servants, but in their independent worlds they could be of no service to each other.

By the end I was exhausted and so was the cast; it showed as they took their bows and I really felt for them for each had put in an absolutely compelling performance.  Without a doubt each member of the cast is strong and engaging, they give it their all and they work hard.  I wonder how poignant the whole play would have become had the 2 acts been switched a la Sondheim’s Merrily We Roll Along? It might have packed the same emotional punch, but it would turn the farce into something a little less buffoonish and a little more ironic … and leave the audience a little less drained.

Remaining shows for Figaro/Figaro at the 14th Street Theater (344 E. 14th Street) are:

March 12-15 at 8pm, March 19-21 at 8pm and a matinee performance on March 22 at 2pm. Tickets ($18, $15 students/seniors) are available online at

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