Cher Public

Servant of new masters

Morningside Opera’s ¡Figaro! (90210) is a staging/translation (into English, Spanish, et al.) of Le Nozze as if in contemporary Beverly Hills (as if!), and it’s playing at the NSD Theater on Bank Street near the Meatpacking District through next Sunday. The whole idea struck me as appalling—Figaro improved? Is that even conceivable?— and I attended with a very big, knotty-pine chip on my shoulder. But well before the end of Act I, the chip had dissipated and a silly grin had settled on my kisser. It stayed there for the rest of the show.

Imperfect, yes—how many perfect Figaros have you attended? (In my case, two, maybe three.) But a charming performance, an engrossing show. It kept me eager to learn what delicious outrage upon the sacred screed the company (Morningside Opera) would perpetrate next.

Now, I’m from the “if-it-ain’t-broke-why-fix-it?” school of opera staging, with the emphasis on “why.” If you do update a classic, don’t just get in a pillow fight with the author. Have a good reason for doing what you’re doing. “No one’s ever done it this way” is not a good reason. I want some sign that the matter has been thought about.

Le nozze di Figaro is perfect as it stands. The only defect is that it’s a bit long—the longest opera buffa ever composed—and that has been addressed. (The Met and the New York City Opera never do present it unsnipped.) But this by itself does not mean a creative update—and a clever translation into the language of the local audience—would not work. (Did you grow up writhing to Ruth and Thomas Martin’s version of Figaro? That was my second opera.) But the updates must be thought through.

In ¡Figaro! (90210), new libretto by Vid Guerrerio, stage direction by Melissa Crespo, we do not wonder (as we do in other modernizations of the opera) why the oppressed underlings have not fled en masse. That is because Susana and Figaro are undocumented Chicanos, and though the boss, real estate magnate Paul Conti, has offered to help them obtain green cards, he expects more than a little quo for his quid.

His chief adversary is his wife, a has-been glamorous film star, but their daughter, goth-haired Barbara, doesn’t make life any simpler by developing a crush on Bernard (aka Li’l B-Man), the teenaged son of Conti’s personal assistant. B-Man hopes to become a rap star, but his hormones keep getting in his—in everybody’s—way. In case any Hollywood minorities are feeling neglected, enter Soon-Yi Nam, to whose sweatshop Susana owes her arrival in the U.S. and a great deal of money, since she fled the factory to work as Mrs. Conti’s maid, and Ms. Nam has brought along an Armenian “enforcer” to break up Susana’s wedding. There is also a gardener who looks somewhat Filipino but mostly stoned. As “mixed race” is the current chic, it is well to note that Figaro turns out to be not nearly so Mexican as he thinks he is.

The translated libretto not only makes these points, in language ripped from today’s news-crawl, it does so in sentiments proper to each character’s self-image. Thus, Señor Conti on why it drives him nuts that his servants chatter to each other in Spanish instead of proper English—enough to make him suspect they are plotting against him—as, of course, they are:

My folks may not have swum here,
But, living in the slum here
Dad said, “Son, we are scum here;
You must speak like you’re from here.”

Then there’s Li’l B-Man, serenading his true love:

Girl, you so money.
You pretty as a rose.
Your honey’s sweeter than
All those other ho’s.
Here’s the sitch,
You’re one hot bitch
So, girl, take off all your clothes.

As for Figaro, when he plans to contest his boss’s scheme, his metaphor is appropriate:

¿Quieres bailar? If the boss wants a showdown
Yo se bailar and I’m ready to throw down,
But as the DJ I lay down the beat
Yo soy el DJ and I’m from the street
So, if we compete,
Prepare for defeat.

This was cute, and to the point, and well enacted, and as rhyming goes on Broadway nowadays, well above standard. But I did have leisure to wonder how the whole thing would come over, would the plot and the characters and the shenanigans make sense to an audience not familiar with the original and therefore aware of what was going on and who was in which dress or what shrubbery?

As for the workings of the plot—the foundling story made a little less sense than it usually does (it never makes much; it’s Beaumarchais’s spoof on Sophocles’s Oedipus), and the great lady’s sentimentality towards a husband of twenty years sits uneasily on the music concocted for a young lady’s sentiments after a marriage of three years. But this whirled by as the individual moments were played engrossingly. Jokes about anonymous letters gone astray traded wittily up to cellular (“Dude! This isn’t my phone! You stole Daddy’s I-phone!”) and the many ways a “sext” can be mis-sent or misunderstood.

However, one alteration proved touching and original to a degree. When B-Man attempts to rap “Voi che sapete” at his girl, she is outraged and he cuts it off. But we haven’t heard the last of the score’s most beloved number. The teen romance given short shrift by Mozart and da Ponte gets its due in this version, where Barbara’s exquisite romanza does not weep over a lost pin but over a broken heart (she’s carrying a noose), and now, at eleven o’clock so to speak, the boy gets to sing his ardent aria to new lyrics, claiming he’s over his gangsta phase and in full love mode. Tragically, both of Susana’s arias must be omitted to permit this rearrangement to take place, but—that’s show biz.

Raphael Fusco led a five-string ensemble from the piano. I thought I’d miss the woodwinds, but the show was so busy stealing hearts, I never had a chance to do so. The joke about horns in Figaro’s last aria is not translated in any case—because what modern American except an opera buff would understand it?

The singers were excellent actors and clear enunciators of lyrics, and some of them were a great deal better than that. Robert Balonek, as Conti, had the line, the range and even the triplets to sing the Count on the legitimate opera stage—and, dammit, he was funny. Besides, we’ve all seen baritones sing with their shirts off—this one keeps his shirt but loses his trousers. Carlos Monzon sang an agreeably ardent Figaro.

Wilbur Watkin Lewis rumbled with authority as the seeker of vendetta, and Deepak Marwah as Basel and Jonathan D. Morales as the gardener played their parts to the hilt, nay, to the very roach-clip. Anthony Chatmon II had the ungrateful chore of singing, in a light pop tenor, the music composed for an agile mezzo Cherubino, and though his vocalism could be less than attractive, his witty acting, the clarity with which he put his lyrics across and the charm of his emotional transformation easily held their central place in the occasion.

Among the ladies, Sophia Benedetti made a winsome, ironic Susana, a fine actress, clear in ensembles if deprived of her arias. Donata Cucinotta sang the Countess’s arias uneasily, but she enjoyed inhabiting the grande dame past her prime role, though she is far too young to seem it.

Brittany Fowler and AnnMarie Sandy brought mellow altos to the sweatshop dragon lady and frustrated gangsta’s mom. Amy Marie Stewart had great fun expanding the emotional impact of Barbara, promoted in this version from gardener’s daughter to Valley Girl Princess, with all expected frustrations and passions: She chewed the scenery with restraint and sang her nocturne beautifully.

So the mad day ended as happily for me as it did for the folks on stage.

Photos: Karen Almond.