It's hard to imagine a work of art more redolent of the cultural establishment than Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. The staple of international opera houses and “Top 10 Operas of All Time” lists has become so closely tied to the petrified world of “high art” that people forget the work's anarchic roots. “The name Figaro has somehow grown such a thick crust of operatic respectability that we have stopped thinking of him as a hairdresser,” French-literature scholar John Wells wrote of the opera's wily, working-class protagonist in his book The Figaro Plays. “But Figaro is still capable of drawing blood.”
Mozart's opera is based on a stage play of the same name, the second in a triptych of comedies written by the 18th-century French dramatist Pierre Beaumarchais. It tells the story of how Figaro and his fiancée Susanna — servants to Count Almaviva and Countess Rosina — manage to outwit the philandering count. Despite having abolished a hated feudal law giving aristocrats the right to sleep with brides on their wedding nights, Almaviva schemes to have his way with Susanna. The story all too clearly satirized life under Louis XVI, a monarch who made overtures toward social reform while still oppressing his people. Historians today widely consider the comedy's riotous April 27, 1784, opening night at the Comédie Française to have played a major role in instigating the fall of the Bastille five years later.
It is the revolutionary zeal at the heart of Beaumarchais and Mozart's works that audacious Minneapolis-based troupe Theatre de la Jeune Lune aims to restore and explore in its adaptation of the Figaro story. Set nearly 20 years after the events depicted in Marriage, director Dominique Serrand's music-infused production at Berkeley Repertory Theatre examines what it's like to live among the embers of a once-blazing revolutionary pyre, through a mixture of Mozartian melody, Beaumarchaisian bombast, and Jeune Lunian lunacy. But while this Figaro reveals thoughtful parallels between the staleness of post-revolutionary France and the widespread feeling of sluggish impotence that has become a hallmark of our own times, it succeeds more as light entertainment than as provocative satire.
One of the most status quo–knocking delights of Jeune Lune's adaptation is its debt to Beaumarchais. Though focused primarily on Marriage, the production draws on material from all three Figaro plays (The Barber of Seville and the largely forgotten A Mother's Guilt are the others) and takes a playful approach to the spoken word. The comedy derives much of its power from the acerbic exchanges and clownish horseplay between the two men who conceived the show and embody its main characters — Serrand, in the role of the now-decrepit count, and mercurial actor and longtime company member Steven Epp as his long-suffering servant. Through their hilarious time-and-space-bending conversations, the two forge a link between the worlds of late-18th-century France and early-21st-century America that is as contemporary as it is timeless. “Don't be too sensitive,” Almaviva scolds his peevish lackey at one point. “You'll end up being a Democrat.” Elsewhere, when Figaro utters the word “democracy,” his boss snorts, “De-bullshit.” The cast even goes as far as to intone “Yes we can!” — the battle cry of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.
Yet the shouts for democracy sound like exhausted and hollow afterthoughts. The childish count may spend his days hiding in a closet in a perpetual bout of postrevolutionary anxiety, but he still exerts authority over Figaro. The servant, for his part, seems to have lost his lust for life. He continues to perform the serf's role begrudgingly, cooking his superior's meals and shaving his face. Serrand has all the best lines and many of the best moves, emphasizing the decidedly reactionary master-servant relationship. In a particularly agile display of physical prowess, the count throws himself headlong into a moving coffin. Meanwhile, Almaviva's response to Figaro's news about Susanna's defection to Virginia to work for “a gentleman named Jefferson” — “I hear they've got great ham” — fizzes with the sort of Jon Stewart-like wit you would expect from the once-wisecracking Figaro, not his bigoted boss.
Even though the revolution has initiated social upheaval of sorts — Figaro and Almaviva flail around in flea-bitten wigs on a derelict, empty set strewn with random bits of temporary-looking furniture, rather than poncing about in powdered pompadours in a gilded chateau — things remain unchanged at the play's core. “Surveillance” cameras projecting close-up mugshots of the performers point to the ominous realities of living in a so-called democratic society, and, much as Western nations continue to send young people to distant battlefields, so Almaviva still dispatches the young page Cherubino to war.
The production's message of post-revolutionary malaise is a powerful one. But for all its strengths, Figaro disappoints by pandering to the public's Mozart infatuation. While Almaviva and Figaro think wistfully of the good old days, we're subjected to lengthy flashback sequences in which the all-singing cast and small pit orchestra perform chunks of the opera with uneven skill. The production attempts to heighten the satire by injecting bits of English into the arias' original Italian. This conceit hints obliquely at the fractured relationship between Italian old-world values and the supposedly forward-looking views of the English-speaking new world. Nevertheless, the endless singing ends up swamping the more brazenly provocative spoken material, making us yearn for Almaviva and Figaro's vehement vaudeville routines, or to experience a more vocally polished Mozart at the Met.
Just like the well-heeled audiences piling into the War Memorial Opera House to enjoy an evening with Mozart (San Francisco Opera has staged Figaro no fewer than 30 times), we can easily feel seduced by the entertainment value of Jeune Lune's production. Instead of “drawing blood” by making us confront our apathy and suppressed rage in the face of failed revolutions past and present, this hairdresser provides a nice neck massage, a copy of Cosmopolitan, and plenty of pomade.