Figaro is a frazzled office worker. Susanna is an ambitious twenty-something Queen Streeter. Alberto is a smug corporate high-roller. Rosina is his alienated wife. Cherubino is an unemployed lesbian. Basilio is Figaro’s wedding planner. Antonio is his florist. Marcellina is events manager. Dr. Bartolo is a priest.
Against the Grain Theatre’s uproarious, irreverent take on The Marriage of Figaro resets Mozart’s enduring comedy of manners in present-day Toronto with an updated cast of characters plucked straight out of the downtown core. Abandoning all but the raw framework of Lorenzo da Ponte’s original 1786 libretto, creator–director Joel Ivany brilliantly succeeds in crafting much more than cute comic pastiche. Basically rewriting the complete eighteenth century text, AtG’s talented young founder has essentially invented a brand new opera, Figaro’s Wedding, a sharp social satire echoing da Ponte’s mad romance as voiced from a distinctly 2013 point of view. It is a ferociously clever tactic, a Mozart-meets-Twitter approach, funny, zingy and focused.
The AtG version of the Figaro story is as fizzy as a wine spritzer.
Figaro and Susanna have been planning the perfect wedding for months. All has not gone smoothly. Susanna refuses to talk to her interfering parents. Figaro’s best man and boss, Alberto, is determined to seduce the bride. Rosina, his wife and Susanna’s best friend, is feeling hurt and angry, not exactly the ideal state of mind for a maid of honour. Then there is Cherubino. Rosina’s gay houseguest has an overactive fantasy sex life. But the biggest problem is Figaro’s trail of NSF cheques. The wedding planners and suppliers are threatening to sue unless he pays their overdue bills. Alberto has deep pockets but his terms are disgusting. Time somebody paid the letch a lesson. Rosina and Susanna hatch a plot. Alberto is tricked into making a pass at someone he thinks is Susanna but is really his wife, no thanks to Figaro who accidentally blunders onto the scheme. Eventually, like all good romantic tales, however chaotic, everything turns out happily in the end. Alberto and Rosina make up. Susanna and Figaro begin their new life together. Figaro even discovers his long lost biological parents. Music up, cue the chorus. Figaro’s wedding morphs into a dream come true.
To call Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro a much-loved, respected opera is unquestionably the most egregious understatement of the past 200 years. It is, to put it mildly, the heart and soul of late Baroque repertoire, one of every operagoers’ most cherished experiences. Deconstructing the piece requires no small amount of courage, not the least of which involves tinkering with the composer and librettist’s original intention to prick holes in the puffed up hypocrisy of unenlightened post Enlightenment aristocracy. By deleting the titled Count from Figaro’s Wedding and substituting a wealthy business executive, director Ivany has far from eliminated the concept of class conflict. Servants vs. masters, low level workers vs. CEOs, the wielders of financial power are the new aristocrats, the new masters of immoral behaviour, the new shady dealers in the Figaro world. It is a compelling argument and one hard to refute in an age of twenty-first century corporate skulduggery. Interestingly, the one constant bridging operas past and present is the character of the Countess, a.k.a. Rosina. Her moral centre is uncompromised in both Mozartian and Ivany-esque treatments. Love and goodness is clearly beyond depictions of class distinction.
By extending the action directly into the audience— we are guests at Figaro’s wedding, after all — every intimate tick of character is suddenly made life size. Set designer Patrick DuWors and Lighting Designer Jason Hand carve out a pair of contrasting playing areas inside AtG’s performance venue, the repurposed upper floor of the classic Queen West Burroughes Building. Seating and action shift from stage to stage as events unfold with much excited buzz. The comedy and drama are non-stop. Teardrops and laughs are big. “I wrote you a song,” Cherubino blurts out to Rosina and promptly proceeds to break our hearts with an unexpected cry of love and longing sung to the strains of “Voi che sapete”.
Nothing is held back in this production. Nothing concealed. Muttered asides are overheard, casual one-liners dropped. “City hall is really cracking down,” Basilio innocently observes re reception hall regulations. Characters march down aisles, appear out of washrooms, exit into stairwells, never far from earshot. Or their cellphones. Figaro uses an iPhone. Alberto is strictly Blackberry. The satire reaches deep into the minutest corners. Figaro’s Wedding party is among us and it is all good fun and singular thrills.
Singing the role of the nervous groom, Stephen Hegedus voices his character with great warmth and liquid tone, his strong high-note friendly baritone balanced and open. This is a hugely endearing Figaro, a tad slow on the uptake but forever quick to forgive.
Miriam Khalil brings her wide-ranging soprano to the role of Susanna, channelling her lower range as seemingly effortlessly as her top. Khalil’s voice is centred and assured with an appealing hint of subtle, understated vibrato. An attractive self-confident Susanna, strong-willed and independent with sharp tongue and flashing eyes.
As Rosina, soprano Lisa DiMaria is quite simply exquisite. Hers is a gleaming, highly burnished sound, a perfect match for her sophisticated character. DiMaria’s rendition of Mozart’s achingly beautiful anthem to a lost past, “Dove sono”, is beyond description.
Alexander Dobson’s unctuous Alberto is a triumph from beginning to end. An accomplished baritone with superb comic timing, Dobson is all arched eyebrows and sly twinkle, his tone smooth and slippery and utterly sleazy.
Teiya Kashara as Cherubino is as brash and outrageous as she is vulnerable. Performance and characterization are nuanced and energetic, her singing clear, pure and straight from the heart.
Tenor Michael Ciufo doubles as Basilio and lawyer Curzio. Baritone Gregory Finney appears as Antonio and Father Bartolo. Mezzo Loralie Kirkpatrick is Marcellina. All are exceptional, dramatically and vocally, particularily in moments of ensemble engagement.
Against the Grain Theatre music director Christopher Mokrzewski conducts from the piano, accompanying a well-blended string quartet drawn from Music in the Barns. Mokrzewski’s musical guidance, like his playing, is consistently respectful and informed charting Mozart’s eternally elegant melodic lines with a confident light touch that reveals all but never intrudes.
Figaro’s Wedding has led AtG followers on an intimately involving journey from programming announcement to first performance, much of it by way of social media. Figaro’s proposal to Susanna, a totally original piece of backstory, was recorded in public and posted on You Tube as was an extended trailer featuring mock interviews with principal characters. The playing out of the work on digital media beyond the limits of any actual physical theatre has given the piece a unique resonance made abundantly evident in its current staging. If this is to be the look and feel of new opera in the twenty first century, the form is well and truly secure.