Bankhead to offer new take on Mozart’s “Figaro”
By Lou Fancher
Livermore Valley Opera Artistic Director Erie Mills calls it her desert island piece.
Opera buffs and music critics often say it’s “sublime,” “witty” and “Mozart’s best” along with similar accolades. Launching LVO’s production on March 11 of Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” stage director Brian Luedloff calls “action!” to start the show.
Luedloff is the University of Northern Colorado’s director of opera theater in Greeley, Colorado. The co-production presented by LVO of Mozart’s farcical masterpiece about two young lovers, a philandering count, revenge, deception and fidelity sets the action in 1940s Hollywood. Lovers of the opera’s original 18th century setting and period costumes will not suffer loss. The creative re-imagining has the 1940s movie star characters filming a traditional production of Figaro.
“Brian gave me the concept, and I liked it instantly because we’d done traditional versions twice before,” says Mills. “I thought it would work for people who’ve never seen it and for people who’ve seen it many times.”
On the Bankhead Theater stage, two 1940s-era movie trailers are arranged downstage of a “film set” designed to look like the 18th century palace in which the one-day-spanning action takes place. Actors rehearse, directors and their clipboard-holding assistants crisscross the stage, singers gossip and formulate plots in their trailer and “filming” moves the story along — while action shifts back and forth between 1946 and the 18th century, the traditional Figaro story is sung in Italian with English subtitles provided. In rehearsals for the opera, Mills attends as if she’s a member of the audience.
“I have to pretend because there aren’t lights yet, but I give my two cents when I don’t understand something. I watch Alex (Music Director Alex Katsman) wave his arms around, and Brian get everyone in the right place with the right intention at the right time. The shifting between centuries has to make sense.”
Mills says that her work as an artistic director is finished long before a production reaches rehearsals. She is already focused on next season’s “Don Pasquale” by Donizetti and Verdi’s “Un Ballo” (“Masked Ball”).
“With Figaro, I get to enjoy watching the process unfold,” she says.
And while watching, Mills hums along and enjoys memories of the first time she sang the role of Susanna in a New York City Opera production.
“The English director John Copley of the Royal (Opera) was directing,” she recalls. “I remember his notes; that the whole thing was about characters done in a way that was charming. He said it must generate an “oh, wonderful” kind of sigh from the audience.”
The drama, she says, flows smoothly in traditional productions and with Luedloff’s re-visioning of the work, a surprising relevance arises.
“Putting people in a more modern setting makes it easier, in some ways, to understand. Why a woman would dress like a man to get work is like the movie “Tootsie” or “Victor, Victoria.”
And why the hot shot movie star thinks he can wield his power and good looks to get what he wants is more accessible than a count who does the same thing. The movie star can walk out on the movie, and it won’t get made.”
Regardless of innovations or authenticity brought to the hybrid production, certain aspects of any successful professional-level opera are a must. Excellent singing and acting, among them.
“As a former singer who now trains students and professionals, I say many people are blessed with a great instrument,” says Mills. “That’s God and genes. Those people should thank their parents. But how you sing, how you color a word, the volume choices, that’s artistry. That’s what you do by yourself. That’s what interests me.”
Describing the cast, Mills says baritone Bernardo Bermudez (Count Almaviva) is a suave actor with a smooth, creamy voice. Soprano Lacy Sauter (Countess Almaviva) comports herself with empathy and supports the pure, “Mozart sound” evenly from high to low notes. Playing a bright but not perky Susanna, soprano Christie Conover’s tone is assured, and her portrayal is one of warm cleverness rather than cold calculation.
Baritone Efrain Solis (Figaro) contributes strength, not in volume as much as in articulation and “well-placed, acoustical ping,” according to Mills.
Offering final advice for people coming to “Figaro” for the first time, Mills suggests doing light homework.
“To appreciate it, read a little something. It’s like NFL football. If you don’t know that eleven people are supposed to move the ball down the field while eleven other people try to stop them, the game doesn’t make sense.”
Game plan for Figaro: two people try to marry while other people interfere. Guess which team wins — or go to the Livermore Valley Opera and find out for yourself.