More than Mozart

'Marriage of Figaro' showcases composer's genius, explores themes of love and forgiveness

Posted: Thursday, April 15, 2010

Lennon and McCartney. Plant and Page. Mozart and Da Ponte.

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Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire

Da who? Even classical music buffs may not be familiar with the name, but librettist and poet Lorenzo Da Ponte was instrumental in helping Mozart reach the top of his game within the operatic genre, collaborating with him on three of his four most famous operas. Their first project, "The Marriage of Figaro," remains one of the world's most popular and enduring comic operas more than 200 years after its debut, and is regarded as a model of the form, both for its lyrical expression of universal themes and for its musical beauty and complexity.

Juneau audiences have a chance to see and hear the famous opera for themselves: Juneau Lyric Opera will present the work this Friday and Saturday, April 16 and 17, and next weekend, April 23 and 24. With the help of Opera To Go, the show then travels to Sitka on April 30. All Juneau shows begin at 7:30 p.m. at the Thunder Mountain High School auditorium.

Though complex, the work is very accessible, said the show's producer, Kristen Miller, a local attorney.

For one thing, though it's sung in Italian, the audience can read along with a digital translation of the words in English during the performance. The supertitles, as they are called, were first featured in Juneau Lyric Opera's production of "Barber of Seville" five years ago. "Figaro" is the continuation of the "Barber" storyline.

"(With the supertitles) it became very approachable, and I think a lot of people who might otherwise not have wanted to try it out thought, 'Hey wait a minute, that doesn't seem so intimidating.'"

Christine Renée Keen, guest soprano from the Anchorage Opera who plays Cherubino in this production, said that often people who say they don't like opera are reacting to the fact that they don't understand it. Once you delve into it, she said, the beauty of the form becomes evident. She had no interest in opera until she tried singing an aria (from "Figaro," in fact) while an undergrad at University of Alaska Anchorage. After that one experience, she fell in love with it.

"Like anything, you can't make a judgment about it until you understand it," she said. "Opera is so beautiful when you figure out what they're saying."

Another thing that makes this opera accessible, Miller said, is the fact that it's a very fast-moving story filled with lots of solid characters.

"It's very funny, it's very active, and it's very moving," Miller said. "It's not the typical kind of stand-and-sing opera. There's a lot going on."

Keen agreed, adding that the combination of multiple story lines, humor and themes of mistaken identity remind her of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors."

"I think that really the draw is that there is so much to latch on to," she said.

Work on the production began in the spring of 2008 and has involved more than 50 people, including Juneau-Douglas High School's Lucas Hoiland on set design, guest director Paul Shipper and Juneau conductor William Todd Hunt as musical director.

Keen, a professional singer with a masters in music, said she was very impressed with the Juneau crew's commitment to the production.

Miller agreed. In addition to her work as the show's producer, she witnessed the work of one of the principal performers first-hand: Her husband David, a local surgeon, plays Figaro.

"It's a year and half to two year commitment to learn these roles, especially the lead roles, and learn them well enough not only to remember them but to put the emotion into them," Miller said.

Her husband brought the "Figaro" text with him everywhere, she said, including on vacation. And once he'd become comfortable with his part, he then began to learn the other principal roles so that he would have a good idea of what was going on at all times.

Finally, what makes this production accessible is Mozart's music, Miller said.

"His music is so beautiful," she said. "Really complex and so beautiful."

Mozart was already well established as a musical genius by the time he tackled opera buffa in 1785.

"I should dearly love to show what I can do in an Italian opera!" he wrote in a letter to his father in May 1783, a couple years after moving to Vienna.

Da Ponte soon provided him with a solid and nuanced Italian libretto, or operatic text, one that would not only allow Mozart to showcase his musical talents but also to entertain the Viennese public with its strong comedic narrative.

For the story, Da Ponte, court poet in Vienna, translated a French play by Beaumarchais. Poets were often given the task of translating plays and other works into librettos, or operatic texts, for composers. "The Marriage of Figaro" is the second part of a three-part story that begins with "Barber of Seville," also made into an opera, most famously by Rossini.

Juneau Lyric Opera produced Rossini's "Barber of Seville" five years ago, and giving local audiences a continuation of Figaro's story is part of the reason they decided to stage the current production.

In reworking the story, Da Ponte was forced to downplay the story's subversive content to make it palatable to the court. Beaumarchais' play, which openly ridiculed the French nobility, was seen as incendiary when it was first performed in 1784, a mere five years before the beginning of the French Revolution.

"Beaumarchais was very critical of the French nobles," Keen said. "A lot of people credit his plays with helping to bring about the Revolution."

Beaumarchais' opinions about the nobility are especially evident in the character of the Count Almaviva, she said.

Set in the late 18th century in the Count's castle in Seville, Spain, the story involves the wedding preparations of Figaro (Miller) and his bride-to-be, Susanna (Tiffany Hanson). The Count, played by guest baritone Christopher Holmes, loves Susanna, and attempts to thwart her marriage to Figaro, regardless of the fact that he's already married to the Countess (Kathleen Wayne) and in love with other women.

Ultimately, the buffoonish Count is given balance by his wife, the Countess, who brings traits of honesty, kindness and forgiveness to the story, Miller said. Miller calls their reconciliation scene one of the most beautiful in all of opera.

"The Count is the one who learns the biggest lesson of anybody," she said. "There's this moment in the opera that gives me chills just thinking about it where he realizes how important it is to forgive and to honor love."

For more information on this production, visit

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