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Forever Figaro, a "Rite" to remember and a Dead Man walks

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Roberto Tagliavini as Figaro and Pretty Yende as Susanna. Photo: Craig Mathew/LA Opera.

There can be no fill of Figaro. He's a force in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro," in Rossini's "Barber of Seville" and even in Corigliano's "Ghosts of Versailles."

Remember. He's not just the rapscallion servant who turns out to be an aristocrat, kidnapped at birth. Nor the semi-moralist trickster masquerading as a barber. But a full-fledged figure occupying the center of LA Opera's festival of Figaro these two months.

The crowds confirm it: Figaro is forever. And they even repeat their embrace by still buzzing the company boxoffice for its 5th -- yes, 5th -- season's offering of Ian Judge's now-modified staging of (oh, why not mention its Italian title) "Le Nozze di Figaro," fast-forwarded from white-wig days to the 1950's.

Especially with conductor James Conlon in charge this time, absolutely galvanizing the orchestra. I thought we would all lift off from our seats during the overture, so bracing and vibrantly dimensional was it.

On to designer Tim Goodchild's opening scene: that red room (assigned conveniently next to the Count's bed chamber) to be occupied by the servant Susanna, her bridegroom Figaro on a ladder painting its tall walls on their wedding day. By now we're all familiar with it.

Only this time our memories are too good. We can't stop harkening back to the production's 2004 premiere when Erwin Schrott, that Brando of baritones sang Figaro -- before springboarding to major stages everywhere. He was a shock to the system, unforgettable as the upstart valet who runs circles around his regal boss with laughing ease, his spoken Italian so meaningfully inflected it needed no translation.

Seriously, who would want to follow that act. But Roberto Tagliavini, with only one Figaro under his belt, plunged into the task -- not too commanding onstage, but certainly able and endowed with a rich mahogany bass-baritone.

Better direction, indeed with a coach more attuned to the Mozart-DaPonte sensibilities, would surely have helped. Especially for Pretty Yende, a brash and brassy Susanna, whose notion of "deh, vieni non tardar" completely lacks any of the wistful tenderness or delicate questing up the chromatic scale that paragons like Lucia Popp delivered (try YouTube to see her et al.) Instead, Yende sends out a rough-and-ready seduction call.

And even though Judge's show is, as before, animatedly funny and fluent, its graphic, x-rated mentality blunts the work's sly allusions.

The cast coped/sang engagingly -- with one standout being the Countess of Guanqun Yu, whose opulent soprano soared so gorgeously at the top that the heavens seemed to open. But on the run's first night, Ryan McKinny as the Count appeared to be missing much of his voice.

No one suffered that disposition, though, in Emilio Sagi's clever staging of "Barber of Seville." Here, there was Rodion Pogossov as an amply instigating gad-about of a Figaro and a strong cast -- Elizabeth DeShong as Rosina and René Barbera as the Count -- quite up to the comic antics required in this bouncing-ball game of deceptions.

But once again a good memory intruded. It reminded me of the 2009 production's Bruno Praticò, a Dr. Bartolo who was surely a double for Zero Mostel -- rolling his rotund self downstage, facing the audience, stopping the action and listening to an importuning knock on the door only to answer loudly in dead pan: "Who Ees Dare?"

Hilarity. And what else to expect from a master practicing this choice role for decades in elite houses internationally.

Thanks to then-director Javier Ulacia the whole show was swiftly strategic. It even boasted those mega-stars Joyce DiDonato and Juan Diego Florez. This time, with Trevore Ross in charge, everything was lower in value except for the sparkling vitality that Conlon coaxed from his pit orchestra.

Both of the above could be viewed as period escapist fare.

But today realism reigns. Movies take their scripts from news stories and so do many operas. Jake Heggie's "Dead Man Walking," for instance, based on Sister Helen Prejean's book chronicling a convicted man's journey from rape and murder to the death chamber in Louisiana had all manner of moralism, including Christian forgiveness and a nun's empathy. The award-winning film starred Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon.

Finally, 15 years after its premiere and world-wide performances, the signal work came to Santa Monica's Broad Stage in the form of a chamber opera. And from all reports about its meagerness as a music entity I can say that the reduced orchestral contingent and fleshed-out scoring are distinct attributes needed and now intact.

First off, the Broad, with its 500 seats, is a perfect forum for smaller works, the antidote to full-spectrum, grand opera stagings. What's more, the whole thing came off movingly. The arias were singable while still capturing the characters' soul-searching and innocent grief.

Granted, you can't escape the maudlin character of the story, told in Terrence McNally's libretto. But you can fault director Brian Staufenbiel's literal staging for emphasizing it. In these days of poetic abstraction do you really need to see an acted-out rape, and before that the young couple romping around in the woods naked? Do you need to see the condemned man strapped to a table tilted upright, uttering his last words? Can't there be a small bit of suggestion somewhere? Do we not have any powers of imagination?

Well, these quibbles did not detract from the tattoo-ed, muscular Michael Mayes as the anguished death-row inmate. And he may even go down in Ripley's as the only bare-chested baritone to do push-ups while singing an aria. Jennifer Rivera's Sister Helen was a figure of apt simplicity working through enough psychic pain for both of them, while conductor Nicole Paiement kept good rapport between stage and instrumental ensemble.

It's good to note that "Dead Man," as a story, was ripe for the picking and surely will go on as popular opera fare.

But music itself made headline news back in 1913. It was then that Stravinsky delivered his primal score "Sacre du Printemps" to the shocked Parisian public -- via Diaghilev's Ballets Russes with choreography by Vaslav Nijinsky -- and sparked a riot over its rhythmically explosive, body-pounding paganism.

Since then the work has become a 20th century concert hall hit and fodder for a myriad of choreographers -- Taylor, Bausch, MacMillan, Bejart, Neumeier, Preljocaj, among them.

So why not Bill T. Jones? Well, yes, the dance-maker joined the fray to celebrate the work's centenary two years ago. Ah, but he did it with Anne Bogart, that acclaimed drama maven, and the two of them deconstructed this ever-dazzling work, seen at UCLA's Royce Hall -- in ways perhaps no one else has thought of.

For starters, the narrator gives us a newsy gazette of figures, like Coco Chanel, who attended the 1913 premiere. And like a Frances McDormand "Fargo" character from Nebraska she explains to a weary war veteran, piecemeal, what the times and music were about. Then we get segments of dancers talking and actors dancing, interspersed with segments of brilliant vocalizations -- all of it breaking apart the score and making the whole a personalized theatrical event, not just movement aligned to music, but a shower of shiny nuggets, with the cast as singers isolating the melodies.

And so does the voice of Barbara Cook shower us with freshets -- still -- even at 87, when no one should be expected to sing, much less in those high-up, honeyed tones -- effortlessly, her phrasing and legato technique a wonder.

Oh, the cabaret diva drops a lyric here or there. And this time out, at the Wallis, she was not averse to taking gentle, good-humored pokes at Streisand and Sondheim. But amid all the patter -- from a wheelchair and remindful of Mabel Mercer, seated at the Carlyle -- Cook could, like no one else -- bring a tear to your eye, as in "No One Is Alone." Whatever is the magic? Unanswerable. But the extraordinary Lee Musiker was at the piano, along with a trio, and their superb ministrations surely had something to do with it.


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