This is Peter Sellars doing a Mozart opera, so as you would expect there is a mixture of the very clever and funny and insightful and also a bit of “stop me if you’ve heard this one before.” Sellars has tackled all three of the Da Ponte operas, and of his versions I like Don Giovanni the best and Cosí the least, with this one somewhere in the middle.
The setting is Manhattan just before Christmas. During the overture we see shots of the city streets and expensive stores, with people toting shopping bags, hailing cabs, going into and out of buildings, frolicking at an ice-skating rink. The Almaviva Palace is Trump Towers. Figaro is Count Almaviva’s chauffeur or doorman – I think chauffeur – and Susanna has a black and white French maid outfit. The other servants are people who work for Almaviva; when the chorus enters for “giovani lieti” near the end of Act I, you see a range of low-level employees – clerical workers, a security guard, a chef, a repair technician of some kind, and so on. (Barberina is merely a gum-snapping young person with Batman earrings, which – the choice of earrings – is somehow entirely the right thing, although I am not sure I could articulate why.)
Susanna and Figaro are lodged in what appears to be the laundry room. In contrast to the countess’s room and the hall of the palace and the garden, it has no windows (the other sets are nearly all window, and in Act III we see the count eyeing the skyline through a telescope) and the bed is a dreary-looking fold-out couch. The production is full of little modern translations of the story – as a textbook adolescent boy, for example, Cherubino comes crashing into the room in a hockey jersey with a clatter of skates and gear, and heads immediately for Susanna and Figaro’s fridge to chug milk straight from the carton. (Since ‘pageboy’ is no longer an occupational category outside of certain sorts of personal advertisements and Cherubino doesn’t have a uniform or an obvious job, I’m not sure what he’s supposed to be doing there – but I guess it doesn’t matter.)
The production does not turn the opera inside out or backwards in any kind of obvious way. There are some moments of self-referentiality, e.g. in Act III when Figaro sets up the march and dance by putting a CD into a stereo and I am not sure because the video quality makes it hard to see the CD, but it looks like he’s playing – naturally – the march from Act III of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro. (The edges of the case are red, like a lot of those older EMI CDs. I am neither so bold nor so knowledgeable as to attempt to identify the recording from the interpretation of the march alone. But of course it’s not really the CD that’s playing, is it. My mind, she is blown.)
The general point seems to be to ask whether we can compare the 18th century class tensions in the opera – unpleasant feudal rights, rebellious servants, relationships that threaten the boundaries between the nobility and everyone else – to the unequal power relationships in the modern world between rich employers and far less rich employees.
(Next section here.)