Inspired by Mozart and Beaumarchais
Adapted by Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand
Directed by Dominique Serrand
Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s production
Main Season · Roda Theatre
April 25–June 8, 2008
West Coast Premiere
Running time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
After bringing us a delicious date with The Miser in 2006, the Tony Award-winning Theatre de la Jeune Lune returns with another eccentric take on a timeless text. Figaro marries music from Mozart’s magnificent opera with famous characters from the plays of Beaumarchais to create an accessible and exceptional new show. In this West Coast premiere, Figaro and the Count recall their rivalries years later—amidst the bloodshed of the French Revolution. Steven Epp—the Miser himself—tackles the title role, while director Dominique Serrand portrays his fallen master. Lush video sets the scene as a cast of accomplished singers surrender to intrigue and seduction. In Figaro, juicy love triangles bed down with ruthless satire of a class-conscious culture. It’s a revolutionary experience that’s the perfect birthday gift for Berkeley Rep.
Steven Epp · Adaptor and Surtitles
Dominique Serrand · Director / Scenography and Video
Sonya Berlovitz · Costume Design
Marcus Dilliard · Lighting Design
Kenneth Helvig · Assistant Lighting Design
Zach Humes · Sound Design
Bradley Greenwald · Music Adaptation
Barbara Brooks · Music Direction
Jason Sherbundy · Conductor and Pianist
Glenn D. Klapperich · Stage Manager
Daniel Lori · PM/TD Video Tech
Paulina Jurzec · Video Tech
Christina Baldwin · Cherubino
Bryan Boyce · Figaro
Steven Epp · Fig
Bradley Greenwald · Count Almaviva
Carrie Hennessey · Marcellina
Bryan Janssen · Bartolo
Justin D. Madel · Basilio
Jennifer Baldwin Peden · Countess
Dominique Serrand · Mr. Almaviva
Momoko Tanno · Susanna
Anna Hersey · Countess (alternate)
Julie Kurtz · Susanna (alternate)
7th Avenue String Quartet
Alex Kelly · Cello
Justin Mackewich · Violin
Katrina Weeks · Viola
Sarah Jo Zaharako · Violin
“Soaring on the gorgeously sung melodies of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro and infused with comic gravitas and thematic depth by masterful lead performers Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp as the aged Count and Figaro, Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s latest creation is an ingeniously funny and poignant, 3-hour blend of Mozart, three plays by Beaumarchais and bits of French Revolution history. Written by Epp and directed and designed by Serrand, the play looks back in hilarity, wonder and remorse at the opera from the vantage of an aristocrat and his servant hiding out in Paris during the Reign of Terror.”—San Francisco Chronicle
“Glorious eccentricity…The musical scenes captivate so entirely, the singers bend the notes with such passion…One startling tableaux after another teases the eye…hypnotic.”—San Jose Mercury News
“Inspired…A colorful burst of high-tech theatrical fireworks and a dazzling display of imagination…They obviously had entertainment uppermost in mind, and filled the auditorium with an astonishing of theatrical mastery ranging from commedia to opera (indeed, a good half of the show featured songs from the Mozart opera)…The show’s remarkably skillful cast uses an array of devices, ranging from song and dance to large videos projections on the walls to live video with enormous close-ups of the actors underlining action…It is no less than a lavish theatrical feast.”—Contra Costa Times
Prologue: from the Artistic Director
Knowable truth, unknowable mystery
At the start of this season, I confess that I was non-plussed by the prospect of our 40th anniversary. In a society that seems desperate to create new marketing hooks to grab the attention of an increasingly overwhelmed and distracted public, a 40th anniversary did not strike me as wildly noteworthy. When we talked about it as a staff, we discussed the usual signifiers of longevity, maturity and sophistication as potential “stories,” but it all felt a bit forced. I was asked repeatedly if there were artistic choices we could make that might emphasize the anniversary, and to the continued disappointment of the staff, my answer was always “no.” The best thing to do, I thought, would be to simply continue doing the work that we do.
Now that the season is drawing to a close, the anniversary has taken on more meaning for me. Producing plays as eclectic and iconoclastic as those we have presented this year has confirmed my belief in our organization and our community, and made me think about the significance of our lifespan. We have built something here, all of us. The longevity of our existence means that we have survived 40 years’ worth of challenges. The maturity of the staff and board has allowed us to move past our individual and collective fear while consistently taking any number of considered risks. The sophistication of our audience has enabled us to produce work that is frequently unfamiliar, untested and challenging. For 40 years, Berkeley Rep has consistently tried to take the road less traveled, and that is a legacy worth cherishing.
Tonight, we continue that tradition with Theatre de la Jeune Lune’s experimental exploration of the life and times of Figaro. Specializing in radical reinterpretations of classical texts, Jeune Lune creates its astonishing productions simply by pursuing the original intent and ambition of the stories. By doing so, they freshly reveal the author’s artistic purpose and historical relevance. History, for the artists of Jeune Lune, is not some clinical chronology of linear events, but a circus of living impulses and ideas requiring a fierce imagination to capture its incongruous vitality and force.
Their Figaro is a new play, combining the texts of The Marriage of Figaro and Mozart’s opera, which describes a world reeling from the stale aftermath of an earlier revolution. Two old men—one a former noble, the other his manservant—recall the past, caught in a web of romantic yearning for their fiery youth (conjured by the sheer beauty of the opera) and the harsh comic realities of the present. Their attempts to find a refuge from their troubles and to understand the course of their lives are alternately pathetic and heartfelt, amusing and sad. In a world changing so rapidly, it is hard to get a handle on meaning. It is a description of the world, then and now, in all its knowable truth and unknowable mystery.
Thanks for being here for this play, for the season and for the 39 before it.
Prologue: from the Managing Director
We’ve come to the end of our 40th subscription season. Our special presentation of Nilaja Sun’s celebrated No Child… will run into June, after which we’ll close our doors for a few short weeks of much-needed rest.
This has been a banner year, filled with accomplishments that make us very proud. We welcomed back artists with whom we’ve had long and warm relationships, such as Mary Zimmerman, Michelle Morain, Danny Hoch, Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand. We’ve also enjoyed the talents of people who are new to the fold—like Will Eno, Carrie Fisher and Frank Galati. The range of work has reflected our curiosity, our ambition and maybe just a bit of our sheer orneriness.
We sent Passing Strange to Broadway, where it received rave reviews and caused the New York Times to proclaim that “Mr. Taccone’s approach—to offer emerging writers the same resources as established ones and to hold them to the same standards—has helped yield a string of hits.” Meanwhile, here at home, Associate Artistic Director Les Waters gave us a stunning Heartbreak House and a richly textured production of TRAGEDY: a tragedy, an American premiere that introduced the Bay Area to an exciting new writer.
We’ve simply loved making theatre for you this year. And, judging from audience response, you’ve enjoyed this season too! It looks as though our attendance figures will approach our historical high-water mark. Our core audience, people who see three or more productions during the season, outpaced anything we’ve seen in years. And the number of people seeing our shows who are under the age of 30 has more than doubled in the last three seasons.
The Berkeley Rep School of Theatre also saw record enrollment in its on-site classes, and our outreach programs extend throughout the Bay Area. Students from our first Teen Council have finished high school and headed off to college, and they’re writing back to tell us, “I didn’t fully appreciate how special Berkeley Rep was until I left. After spending six months exploring the somewhat commercial, somewhat pretentious New York theatre scene, I’m as homesick for Berkeley Rep’s incredible work as I am for a Gordo’s burrito.”
This year, in addition to delicious theatre, audiences have enjoyed lower prices, gourmet tastings, 30 Below and night/OUT parties, corporate nights, Page to Stage presentations, docent talks and more. Let’s face it, Addison Street has been hopping!
It’s been a pretty fine birthday. I applaud all of you for helping us make it momentous. And I ask you to join me in applauding Berkeley Rep’s committed staff and our volunteer board, who work with such love and attention to bring great theatre to you.
Figaro: An introduction
By Gideon Lester
Figaro depicts the complex relationship between a master and servant while taking class and revolution as its central subject. Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy of plays about Figaro the barber and his relationship with his patron, the Count Almaviva. The first two, Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville—1775) and Le Mariage de Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro—1784) were immensely popular when they were first performed in Paris; indeed the premiere of Le Mariage was so packed that three members of the audience were crushed to death in the crowd.
The first two Figaro plays derive much of their comic energy from the class tension between Figaro and his master, and The Marriage of Figaro in particular is often read as a precursor to the French Revolution, which broke out in 1789. Beaumarchais tried to recapture his former success by writing a third play, La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother—1792) which takes place 20 years after the earlier plays. Napoleon was said to admire it, but it never attained the popularity of The Marriage of Figaro and The Barber of Seville, in part because its plot is complicated and its tone less buoyant—and also because Paris had inexorably changed, and audiences had no time for the fantastical exploits of an aging aristocrat and his wily servant.
Jeune Lune’s Figaro uses The Guilty Mother as a frame through which we view Mozart’s opera, The Marriage of Figaro. Dominique Serrand and Steven Epp have reimagined the Count and Figaro in hiding in Paris, while the revolution rages around them. Old habits die hard, and the Count still tries to treat Figaro as his servant, but the power dynamic has shifted, and the household is constantly threatened by a small-scale revolution of its own.
In this production, when the present-day Count and Figaro (or “Fig,” as the Count calls him) remember the past, it materializes in fragments of opera from The Marriage of Figaro. Thus past and present haunt each other—Fig and the Count are shadowy witnesses of their former lives, and the ghosts of the past are forever flitting around their current situation. It’s a beautiful and subtle relationship, made all the more poignant with exquisite sequences of live video, which can bring moments from the past to stunning new life.
Serrand and Epp’s portrayal of the Count and Fig, a master and servant locked in an eternal co-dependency, is by turns brutally funny and horrifying. The two of them live in a time warp, stuck between the excesses of the past and the freedom and terror of the future, frozen on the cusp of a great historical shift which, once past, will transform the world forever. The production is also a subtle but brilliant commentary on the state of American freedom; Fig seems aware that the birth of French democracy is causing ripples in the colonies across the Atlantic, though he’s not quite sure where, or what, America is. “We gave them democracy, and what did we get in return?” he complains. “The potato!”
Figaro is also a wonderful adventure in theatrical invention. It juggles two very different genres, and creates a new form in doing so. It manages to tell two stories at once—or rather three, because Figaro also tells a story of our contemporary world, as well as the historical past. It’s an irreverent homage, a celebration of the genius of Mozart, Molière and Beaumarchais, but a production that belongs very much to our own time.
Steven Epp and Dominique Serrand on Figaro
Paris, 1792. Or by the calendar of the revolution—Year One
The heady days of liberty have deteriorated into chaos. The rascals of the regime flee Paris in droves. Louis XVI and his Queen make a run for the border. Violence and terror reign.
But…on the Avenue de la Republique, across the boulevard from the ruins of the Bastille…here, in the refuge of this mansion…one lone family remains…
We call this one simply “Figaro,” for it is through Figaro that we come to brush shoulders with the explosive events surrounding the French Revolution. Over the course of his life in service to Count Almaviva and through his tumultuous marriage to Susanna, Figaro witnesses the world cracking open; society is upended and the human story irrevocably changed. We’ve chosen a vantage point late in Figaro’s life, after so much turbulent water has flowed under the bridge—from this precipice Figaro looks back to try to comprehend how we come to be of this world, how the world we inherit makes us who we are and how anyone, against all odds, can change the outcome of that world.
A revolutionary perspective on The Marriage of Figaro
If it is controversial today for a country-rock band to protest its government, one can only imagine the plight of an artist who dared to be critical of the monarchy in pre-revolutionary France. In The Marriage of Figaro, Beaumarchais’ criticism comes in his creation of a lustful, depraved Count and servants who are the intellectual equals of their masters. For years the king and playwright sparred over the right to perform the play. In 1782 Beaumarchais was at the peak of his popularity and responded to the king’s objections with what was a public relations coup: he organized an intense schedule of private readings, and word-of-mouth soon took hold.
On April 27, 1784, three years after The Marriage of Figaro was first submitted to the Comèdie Française, the king finally permitted a public performance in Paris. Thousands of people began crowding the Odèon Theatre early that morning. That evening, the audience applauded nearly every line; the show was a raving success. Many aristocrats joined in the applause, unaware that they were witnessing the prologue to their own demise. Five years later it was the people of France who would challenge the monarchy. Many of those wealthy aristocrats applauding the premiere of Figaro would pay with their heads!
Two years later, in 1786, with an Italian libretto rushed to the page by da Ponte in less than six weeks, Mozart premiered his operatic retelling of Figaro’s marriage in Vienna. Hugely popular, the demand for encores sometimes pushed the four-hour length of the opera to eight, with audiences on their feet late into the night. This revolutionary work remains a cornerstone of the standard repertoire.
Opera’s debt to Beaumarchais
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais was one of the most fascinating figures of the 18th century. Born the son of a watchmaker in 1732, he soon learned the family trade, making several modifications to the traditional watch mechanism which are still in use today. In the course of his life he made and lost several fortunes, worked as a secret agent spying on England for the king’s intelligence service, organized substantial financial and logistic support for the American Revolution and published a 70-volume edition of the complete works of Voltaire. Despite his support for the French Revolution, Beaumarchais’ position at court caused him to be viewed with skepticism, and after a brief imprisonment in Abbaye Prison, he was forced to flee to Germany. His property was confiscated, and he died in near-poverty.
Beaumarchais’ literary career was wildly successful, though it seemed to be almost an afterthought to him as he focused on his political activities. His plays and novels display a brilliant ability to subtly but harshly criticize the political and social establishment in such a way as to almost completely avoid censorship. His plays have proved irresistible to composers and have seen multiple operatic adaptations. Here are some of the most significant examples:
Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais’ Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1772)
Beaumarchais first wrote The Barber of Seville as an opéra-comique. When it was rejected by the administration at the Comédie-Italiens, he decided to turn it into a play. The score to the opera version has been lost, and not much is known about it.
Giovanni Paisiello’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1782)
The first successful operatic adaptation of the Figaro stories came from the composer of such 18th century hits as La Serva Padrona. When it came to writing wildly popular operas, Paisiello was second only to Cimarosa—he wrote well over 90 shows. Due to shifts in popular taste, his music declined in popularity in the 19th century and has never really recovered. In 1776, Paisiello was appointed music director for the court of Russia’s Catherine II. Knowing of Catherine’s admiration for Beaumarchais, Paisiello made sure to stick as closely to the play as possible in his adapatation.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro (1786)
It was the box office success of the Vienna production of Paisiello’s Barbiere that prompted Mozart and Da Ponte to adapt Le Mariage de Figaro (the sequel to Barbiere), and many of the musical aspects of Mozart’s Nozze show Paisiello’s influence.
Antonio Salieri’s Tarare (1787)
One of the few operas for which Beaumarchais actually wrote the libretto, Tarare was an extreme experiment in operatic style. Building on the style of 18th century German composer and dramatist Christoph Willibald Gluck, Salieri made extensive use of a dramatic style which flows smoothly between recitative and arioso, but never actually moves into formal arias. This focus on dramatic form allowed the music to be shaped by and directly express the text—a radical approach not to be seen again to this degree until Wagner.
Gioachino Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia (1816)
Rossini’s show premiered as Almaviva, to distinguish it from Paisiello’s work, but Roman audiences still reacted harshly to the news that a 24-year-old upstart would have the nerve to compose an opera using the very same play as the great Paisiello. Opinion quickly shifted once it was perceived that Rossini’s was the better show, though, and by the time the opera reached Bologna later that year, Rossini was able to change the title back to Il Barbiere di Siviglia.
Jules Massenet’s Chérubin (1903)
Cherubino, first introduced in Le Mariage de Figaro, was one of Beaumarchais’ most beloved characters. In Chérubin, Massenet imagines his life shortly after the events of Le Mariage de Figaro. Cherubino is now a 17-year-old army officer, but he’s still hopelessly vulnerable to female charm in all its forms. Many of the characters from the Beaumarchais plays make appearances, and, in homage to Mozart, Massenet quotes parts of Don Giovanni and has Cherubino played once more by a woman.
Darius Milhaud’s Le Mère Coupable (1966)
While the first two plays of the Figaro trilogy saw operatic adaptations within a decade of their premieres, the third installment would have to wait over 170 years before a composer took a stab at it. La Mère takes place several years after the first two plays, after Rosine has had a child by Cherubin. Milhaud seems to have been a bit overwhelmed by the complexity of the plot’s twists and turns, and the opera was not particularly successful.
John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles (1991)
For the first new opera commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera since Barber’s Antony and Cleopatra in 1966, Corigliano and William Hoffman, his librettist, took as their starting point La Mère Coupable. Unlike Milhaud, however, they expanded on the story, using it to create a fascinating world in which the fictional world of Beaumarchais meets the reality of 18th-century France. Haunting the halls of Versailles, the ghost of Beaumarchais comforts the ghost of Marie Antoinette, who, after 200 years, still hasn’t fully dealt with the shame of her execution. He enlists the help of Figaro and the Almaviva family in performing his new opera, through which Beaumarchais attempts to alter history and save Antoinette from the guillotine. The score’s lyrical music includes multiple quotations from the Mozart and Rossini operas, as well as more subtle references to Strauss and others.
Reprinted courtesy of The Baltimore Opera Company.