You might walk into Figaro expecting the action to commence in Count Almaviva's castle near Seville in the late 18th century, followed by some four hours of musical transcendence and narrative tedium, in roughly equal parts. In Jeune Lune's startlingly vibrant production, though, the plot unfolds in the Paris of 1792—or Year One, if you reckon by the calendar of the French revolution.
Fig (Steven Epp) makes his first appearance while grumbling and pushing a big wooden crate. Inside is the Count (Dominique Serrand), who spends the opening scene speaking through a tiny hole placed at mouth level. We learn that Fig has saved the Count's ass by smuggling him into his own mansion and away from the hungry guillotine. The Count, for his part, is daft and clueless, and quite intent on maintaining the old social order, if only behind his own walls.
The traditional action in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro is behind us, in other words, and Epp and Serrand hunker in the ashes—two living ghosts who won't part company with the earth. Fig's beloved Susanna has decamped for America, a country where a potentate named George W. rules. A few tired shots at the administration aside, the texture of this stuff is so rich and smart, you almost feel a pang of regret when the music starts. And then, of course, we're hooked by Mozart's superhuman brilliance: Who else but that little freak could toss off angelic scales on such crushing deadlines?
Fig and the Count alternately bitch and reminisce, with the one-day plot of the original opera serving to shed light on their current predicament. The well-known musical numbers become flashbacks, and memories are mixed indeed. The engine of the classic opera, after all, was the Count's attempt to seduce Susanna on her wedding day. Here, Momoko Tanno plays the pivotal role with fire and scrappiness. Her performance reminds us that in Mozart's opera, and the Beaumarchais play that was its source, the lower orders outshone their ostensible betters.
Jeune Lune's revival of this 2003 production, designed and directed by Serrand, leans heavily on oversized video projections, often involving close-ups of the singers and juxtaposed images. It would be too much if Serrand's staging weren't so restlessly inventive and visually sumptuous.
In one scene, for instance, the Countess (Jennifer Baldwin Peden) stands in a boat, singing a sweet song of heartbreak, while her face fills the wall behind her. Many of the Countess's woes spring from the attempted seductions of adolescent horndog Cherubino, played by Christina Baldwin—who also happens to be Jennifer's sister. Paging Dr. Freud!
While we're calling in the medics, on the opening night of this extravagance, a young woman apparently fainted in the seat in front of me and had to be carried out. A man higher up reportedly fell into such a deep slumber that his family was checking for a pulse. I won't suggest a causal connection (you want to kill onstage, but not literally). But it was perhaps more disturbing to see a fair number of empty seats for what I consider (in the immediate afterglow) to be one of the best shows I have ever seen.
By the end, Fig and the Count have turned that day in the past into a sort of Groundhog Day eternity. And in a short video, the Count's son (an uncredited Nathan Keepers) recites a monologue in which he looks back on that day as an attempt by his parents and their servants to respond to the revolutionary spirit that engulfed both France and America. What they strived for, he suggests, was to create both a "world made new," and a "revolt in the heart." Revolutions large and small tend to ossify, after all. How audacious of this show to reach into the past and dare us to burn again.