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This story by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper
on June 17, 1998. All rights reserved.
Grand Old Operas, Brave New Venue
With a gala opening featuring Mozart’s "Marriage
of Figaro" on Saturday, June 20, Opera Festival of New Jersey
begins its 15th season in its new venue, Princeton’s McCarter Theater.
Mirroring the physical relocation of the festival, director Albert
Takazauckas moves "Marriage of Figaro" from its late
setting to the late 1930s.
The opening night gala begins with cocktails and dinner in McCarter’s
lobbies. Co-chairs of the gala committee are Princetonians Alan and
Peggy Karcher, and William and Sylvette Krause. Also serving on the
committee are the Metropolitan Opera’s Sharon Sweet, and husband John
Sweet, who reside in Princeton.
After 14 successful seasons at the Kirby Arts Center of the
School, with its seating capacity of some 800, OFNJ has moved, with
understandable reluctance, to a performance space that accommodates
1,000 and that also offers improved technical facilities. In an effort
to approximate the sylvan ambiance traditionally associated with the
summer festival, a gathering and strolling area is being created on
the grounds of McCarter with flower boxes and benches; a green and
white hospitality tent will stand in the trees adjacent to the
Picnicking will take place on the lawn of the nearby Princeton
Seminary, either outdoors or under a large tent. In addition to the
usual parking areas near McCarter, parking will be available in a
Director Albert Takazauckas enthusiastically confirms he will take
advantage of McCarter’s technical facilities. "I don’t think
would care about the rope system or the trap door on stage. We will
have a moon rise. But I don’t want anybody to notice what we’re doing
technically. I don’t want the audience to say `He sure is using the
hemp’ — that’s the term for the rope system."
OFNJ has entrusted Takazauckas with many of its
operas. During the last two seasons his realistic stage action has
made the audience figuratively stand on tiptoe to get a glimpse of
what is happening, so well does he make his onlookers part of the
action. In Stravinsky’s "Rake’s Progress" (1996) the players
on stage see the face of the bearded lady "Baba the Turk"
before the audience does; it is as if the audience were straining
from the back rows of the crowd to watch her descend from her sedan
chair. In Barber’s "Vanessa," the doctor places a screen
the bed of the rescued Erika, and the audience joins with the
on stage in being equally excluded. Somehow, the distance that
creates in both these cases increases the degree of audience
Takazauckas prides himself on focusing on the material hand, and
extraneous considerations. "One of the things I feel pure
he says, "is that I haven’t been pulled and pushed around by a
lot of theories."
Takazauckas grew up in Greenwich Village, the son of a Lithuanian
father and a Calabrese mother. His interest in staging opera and
theater developed at New York’s New School. His first directing
came while he was working at Columbia University as the map curator,
and devoting his vacations to summer stock theater. A California
for 13 years, he has directed a wide range of vehicles — classical
opera, romantic opera, Broadway musicals, contemporary opera, and
a variety of plays. Since U.S. 1 last talked to Takazauckas (July
9, 1997) he has directed a production of "Little Women" at
Washington’s Kennedy Center that will tour the United States for three
months beginning in September; a production of Stephen Sondheim’s
highly-regarded musical "Company;" and a production of Ferenc
Molnar’s "The Guardsman," for the American Conservatory
Takazauckas says his conception of "Figaro" was inspired by
Jean Renoir’s 1939 film, "Rules of the Game." "I saw how
much Renoir took from Beaumarchais, the playwright who created Figaro,
and from da Ponte, the opera’s librettist. So I decided to take some
"I’ve set the opera in the period just before World War II. It
was the last gasp for the aristocracy. After World War II, aristocracy
went underground. Monarchy could rise up again, for display or
But the period before World War II was the last overt expression of
power of the aristocracy. It meant something to have a title."
In 1786, when Mozart’s "Marriage of Figaro" premiered, an
aristocratic title meant much more. In the 1780s a title was the
to liberty, and a sign that one’s opinions had weight. However, the
intellectual ferment that led to the French Revolution in 1789 was
already present. Five years before the revolution, Beaumarchais’
Marriage of Figaro," the play on which Mozart’s opera is based,
incited doubts about the status quo. Engaging by its wit, it
threatened the old order. Mozart, a politically enlightened Freemason,
was sympathetic to both Beaumarchais’ political ideas and his skill,
and so was Mozart’s librettist, da Ponte.
Director Takazauckas, who likes to look into the background of
he directs, cites the French Revolutionary leader Danton as saying
that Beaumarchais’ "Figaro" killed aristocracy, and cites
Napoleon who referred to it as "the play that began the
Takazauckas adds his voice to these.
"It was the first time in the theater that the valet says `No,’
and wins," he says. "`Figaro’ is both a political act and
a comedy at the same time. That’s usually not a good balance. But
this is a very solid play by Beaumarchais. For da Ponte and Mozart
to get it performed they had to convince Emperor Franz Joseph that
they would edit it down. In the play, when Figaro says to the Count,
`What have you done? You took the trouble to be born!’ the audience
must have jumped out of their skin. But the Declaration of
had already been published. Revolution was in the air."
Takazauckas sees autobiography in playwright Beaumarchais’
of Figaro." "Beaumarchais is nobody," Takazauckas says.
"He comes out of the lowest rungs of the social order and
himself. Because his father was born Protestant, Beaumarchais was
technically illegitimate. The father realized that the family would
never make it as Protestants, and signed a paper to declare the family
Catholic. The children were baptized, but grew up with no inner
content. Throughout his life, Beaumarchais was living a lie. He
a Figaro. At first he is a watchmaker, and designs levers that make
possible small watches. They become popular in aristocratic circles.
He marries way above his position. It’s the same thing that happens
to Figaro. For all his intelligence and bravery, Figaro is not
He has to have parentage and a pedigree."
The aristocratic privilege that propels the plot is that of droit
du seigneur — the master’s rights that included access to any
woman in his service. With dazzling intricacy, the plot unfolds during
the course of four acts, all of which take place within the space
of a single day.
For first-time audience members, the convoluted plot of
can be a challenge. "Beaumarchais was a watchmaker!" declares
Takazauckas. "He spent the first part of his life putting
little tiny pieces of machinery that make clocks work as a unit.
where his mentality comes from."
As the opera opens, Figaro, the valet of Count Almaviva, is measuring
the bedroom which he and his fiancee Susanna, the maid of Countess
Almaviva, will share after their wedding. Susanna does not want the
room. For when Figaro observes that the location is ideal for
getting to the Countess, she points out that it is also ideal for
the fickle Count’s reaching her.
Next we meet the matronly, aristocratic Marcellina and Doctor Bartolo
enter, plotting to force Figaro to marry Marcellina, because of an
old debt. Then enters Cherubino, the count’s page boy whose hormones
lead him to fall in love with just about every woman he encounters.
He has been dismissed for flirting with the gardener’s daughter,
and asks Susanna to help him regain his appointment. This also
the Countess, once her husband’s beautiful trophy, now neglected in
favor of his other conquests.
In a succession of comic scenes, the various characters
press their cause, each resorting to trickery to catch up their
Fortunately, the moving and sad Act Four brings a happy ending for
Takazauckas is nonplused when explaining why the young lover Cherubino
is sung by a woman. "Trouser roles," he says, "are such
a long-standing tradition in opera. I’ve done a lot of Handel, and
there are usually trouser roles. I find them charming. In English
pantomimes trouser roles were devised so you could see a woman’s legs.
In opera, trouser roles have to do with the voice type. I don’t think
Mozart or Strauss were very fond of tenors — they preferred a
mezzo to a tenor. Trouser roles were part of the tradition. They
great roles for women."
"Figaro" will be sung in English, rather than the original
Italian, a choice that Takazauckas applauds. "It always seems
to me that comedy should be done in the language of the people
he says. "It makes it easier. Melodramas or tragedies should be
done in the original language. The audience reaction is different.
In comedy you want to be more on top of it, and part of the
Making their OFNJ debuts in the production are Figaro (Mark McCrory),
Susanna (Alicia Berneche), and Bartolo (Rod Nelman). Returning to
OFNJ are Count Almaviva (Kelly Anderson), Countess Almaviva (Jennifer
Casey Cabot), and Cherubino (Laura Tucker).
"Part of the job," says Takazauckas "is working with new
people." But "there’s also something comforting about working
with people you know. I’m interested to see Laura Tucker, who played
[the tormented] Erika in `Vanessa’ play comedy. In opera you work
your ideas around the people. There’s give and take. Unlike a play,
where I get to cast, in opera, usually I’m not asked at all about
Takazauckas is most pleased with OFNJ’s new venue. "How exciting
that this wonderful company is moving into McCarter," he says.
"I live in California, but anything that matters culturally in
this country is important. I worry about the arts being shunted aside
for the information highway. I worry that the humanity that live
gives us is losing ground. The Japanese have an axiom, `A town without
a poet is a dead town.’ Without art, you’ve lost your history, lost
— Elaine Strauss
Place, 609-683-8000. $22 to $58. The Marriage of Figaro,
June 20, 8 p.m.; Friday, June 26, 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 28, 2 p.m.;
Sunday, July 12, 2 p.m.; and Thursday, July 16, 8 p.m.
p.m.; Sunday, July 5, 2 p.m.; Friday, July 10, 8 p.m.; and Saturday,
July 18, 8 p.m.
8 p.m.; and Sunday, July 19, 2 p.m.
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