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"Make-A-Wish"-Inspired Mozar

March 16, 2009

Goat Hall Productions, a Bay Area company that specializes in producing new operas, just finished a run of one of the genre's biggest chestnuts, The Marriage of Figaro. The 1786 Mozart/Da Ponte opera's broad social satire, fluid plot and hummable music make it a constant presence on big and small stages alike. It's been -- or is in the process of being -- produced by no less than four different Bay Area companies in recent weeks including Sacramento Opera (February 27 - March 3), Santa Clara Mission City Opera (February 20 - March 1) and Livermore Valley Opera (March 14 - 22).

Goat Hall's instincts for producing the opera are, in a way, atypical (or at least, few companies would admit to this rationale for staging a work): According to Goat Hall's artistic director Harriet March Page, the opera was included in the company's present season as a reward to Goat Hall's hard-working corps of singers, who've been dying to take a crack at singing Mozart's arias in front of an audience.

There's nothing wrong with this impulse per se, especially for a company whose singers spend most of their time wrapping their bodies and minds around the more atonal modern repertoire. Certainly, the production makes the most of the many chatty, fourth-wall-eschewing asides in Figaro's plot by staging the work in an intimate cabaret setting complete with ringside tables and chairs and aisle-hopping cast members clad in eighteenth century brocade and wigs serving fizzy wine and plates of sweet treats.

But though I had fun the night I saw the show in Berkeley, pink champagne and enthusiastic performers do not necessarily a compelling production make. I would have liked to have seen Page, as director of the show, focus more strongly on creating a more imaginative mise-en-scene and push for coherent vocal and dramatic performances. Some of the performers, such as Letitia Page in the role of the Countess and Elizabeth Henry as Cherubino, did a great job of meeting the technical and emotional demands inherent in communicating Mozart's arias. But the singing from some of their fellow cast members was at times tuneless and grating.

On the directorial and acting front, the stage was always very busy, with people scurrying backwards and forwards or jumping off the stage and scuttling around the back and up the side aisle. Mugging and indicating abounded. As a result, this Figaro was exhausting to watch.

Finally, from a sets and costumes perspective, there's something to be said for a director choosing to use their possibly minimal budget with maximum creativity. Basically, unless you have quite a bit of money to have tailor-made eighteenth century costumes and sets built, you're probably better off finding a simpler look for the designs. Modern costumes, or plain matching "background" clothes embellished by one beautifully crafted ornament for each performer to suggest the period in question e.g. a gorgeous bodice or ornate shoe buckles, would make a bold, visually arresting and stylish statement. The same principle goes for the set. But Goat Hall's mish-mash of half-well- half-ill-fitting bodices, skirts, wigs and stockings gave off an amateurish air.

Though the cast members obviously enjoyed themselves up on stage, the production didn't really do this usually innovative company justice. Responding to singers' wishes is a generous impulse on the part of Goat Hall's leaders. But the creative execution has to be on a par with the fairy godmother-like impulse in order to make for an artistically satisfying experience.

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