‘The Marriage of Figaro,’ right in time with the 21st century

Dorothea Röschmann and Christopher Maltman rehearse in Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
Dorothea Röschmann and Christopher Maltman rehearse in Los Angeles Philharmonic’s “The Marriage of Figaro.”
(Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

Suffice to say that Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte weren’t thinking about Proposition 8 when they composed “The Marriage of Figaro.”

The 1786 comic opera follows bullying Count Almaviva’s efforts to invoke droit du seigneur to sexually conquer Susanna, bride-to-be of his right-hand man Figaro, on the couple’s wedding night: a licentious sendup of European aristocracy with a simmering soupçon of class warfare to rouse the rabble.

But to hear it from Christopher Alden, boundary-pushing director of a new “Figaro” production by the Los Angeles Philharmonic that kicks off its four-performance run Friday at Walt Disney Concert Hall, Mozart’s 18th century masterwork couldn’t be more timely today.


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“It comes down to two people fighting for the right to be married and sleep together without the lord of the manor interfering,” Alden said. “To me it seems very close to the issues surrounding gay marriage — not that I’m stage-directing it that way. But it’s a human-rights struggle down to our time. It’s very relevant.”

That narrative subtext is one of many ways the philharmonic’s “Figaro” has been vividly re-imagined for a 21st century audience. The second of an intended Mozart / Da Ponte opera trilogy bringing together a dream team of creative collaborators under Disney Hall’s curvilinear roof, the production reunites Alden with conductor Gustavo Dudamel; they mounted a highly conceptual reinvention of “Don Giovanni” at Disney Hall last year.

In stark departure from traditional “Don Giovanni” stagings, that Los Angeles-centric production showcased sets by Angeleno architectural eminence Frank Gehry inside the hall he created, and costuming courtesy of Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the Pasadena-born sister duo behind cutting-edge fashion label Rodarte.

“Figaro” arrives as a decidedly French affair.

Gehry enlisted France’s reigning architect, Jean Nouvel, to design “Figaro’s” sets. And Nouvel brought in his friend of 30 years and neighbor in Paris’ Marais district, Azzedine Alaïa — whose seductive fashions have found favor with the likes of Madonna, Lady Gaga and former French Vogue editor Carine Roitfeld — to create costumes.

“How to combine the symphonic world with art? You think: ‘It can be crazy,’” Dudamel said. “But this kind of crazy works!”

By all accounts, the creative team behind the opera learned important lessons from “Don Giovanni” to streamline the “Figaro” production process. Moreover, both operas further the philharmonic’s stated mission to engage in a broader cultural dialogue through dynamic interface with other branches of the art world.

“We’re trying to design these unique projects that somehow bring the arts together around the symphony orchestra,” said Chad Smith, the philharmonic’s vice president of artistic planning. “We take a much bigger view of what the conversation can be artistically than just presenting orchestral concerts. The Mozart / Da Ponte trilogy is absolutely at the heart of that philosophy.”

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New pursuits

Shortly after arriving in Los Angeles last week, Alaïa sequestered himself in a cramped dressing room within the bowels of Disney Hall, making final adjustments to a black wool jacket with gold Lurex thread worn by Edwin Crossley-Mercer, the hunky French baritone who portrays Figaro.

“It’s the most beautiful costume I’ve ever worn,” Crossley-Mercer remarked. “Like a work of art that is very specifically made with a specific concept. It gives a dimension to your character. It’s like a Rolls-Royce!”

Alaïa had never created costumes for a theatrical performance, nor previously designed menswear. But over the course of meetings with Nouvel, Alden and Dudamel in Paris last year, the Tunisian-born couturier hashed out ways to visually acknowledge “Figaro’s” Age of Enlightenment milieu without sacrificing the unique nowness he brings to the project.

All 11 performers traveled to his Paris atelier for fittings. And Alaïa made specific design choices based on their individual physiques — such as showcasing Crossley-Mercer’s rippling abs by having him emerge on stage shirtless in the performance’s opening act.

“I didn’t want to do things in the classical way,” Alaïa said through an interpreter.

Where the Mulleavy sisters cloaked performers in striking crumpled metallic armor and voluminous gowns for “Don Giovanni,” Alaïa stuck with a more straightforward approach: the kind of functional couture not far removed from his signature fashions.

“It’s quite different from last year when Kate and Laura designed these elaborate fantasy clothes,” Alden said at a Mid-City rehearsal space across from a Roscoe’s House of Chicken and Waffles. “There was some question if some of the staging would have to be modified — especially for the women — in those modern clothes.”

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Likewise, Gehry’s abstract stagecraft last year suggested little of 17th century Seville, where “Don Giovanni” is set. Composed of gargantuan mounds of ruffled paper interspersed with giant white cubes and stairwell risers — a craggy, iceberg-like tableau — the sets served as a theoretical realm, a dream-like counterpoint to the opera’s action.

“From a visual standpoint,” Smith explained, “he was creating a landscape of Don Giovanni’s mind.”

Nouvel’s connection to the cultural realm is well established, with the Copenhagen Concert Hall, Lyon’s Opéra Nouvel and the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis helping him clinch the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s top award, in 2008.

Unlike the “Don Giovanni” production, which placed musicians in bleachers behind the proscenium (creating certain logistical headaches for Dudamel’s musical direction at the time), Nouvel’s mise-en-scène situates the orchestra in a cut-out pit in front of a slanting stage — a crimson plain covered with a receding grid of painted lines.

The stage leads up to an imposingly vertical, four-tiered riser structure where performers await their cues (in the absence of off-stage theater wings) also coated in shades of vermilion — a nod to “Figaro’s” Andalusian setting.

“In comparison with a traditional opera house and stage, you have a very short distance here,” Nouvel said at Disney Hall this week. “So I played with the slopes and perspective to create a feeling of a larger space.”

Foremost in Nouvel’s estimation, however, was paying homage to revolutionary French satirist Pierre Beaumarchais’ play “Le Mariage de Figaro,” on which Mozart’s “Figaro” is based, while highlighting the opera’s modernity.

“The idea was not to create a perfect re-situation of the epoch,” Nouvel said in halting English. “The text is modern. The woman condition, the question about sexual harassment, the relationship of Figaro with authority: It all makes sense today. We tried to create something without the dust of traditions.”

“And an architect like me is trying to create poetry at the same time,” the architect added, his eyes twinkling. “It’s like doing music with images and light.”

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Operatic challenge

The philharmonic’s ambitious Mozart / Da Ponte trilogy began humbly enough in 2008, originally brainstormed by Dudamel — in conversation with Smith and philharmonic Chief Executive Deborah Borda in a Berlin Starbucks — as an excursion into opera with a strong visual tie-in. Longtime philharmonic patron Gehry was a natural first stop, and Dudamel’s wife, Eloísa Maturén, proposed enlisting fashion talent.

Through Gehry’s introductions and outreach, the new opera template has flourished. And on Wednesday, the architect was among those in attendance at an invitation-only dress rehearsal where he watched the production’s first full run-through with apparent pride.

According to Dudamel, performing opera — specifically, Mozart’s — has fundamentally altered the philharmonic’s M.O. by helping the musicians develop nimbleness and refine technique through the interplay with operatic singers.

“It’s a completely different orchestra than last year when we were doing ‘Don Giovanni,’” Dudamel said at a Hollywood Bowl event earlier this month. “You have to think a lot to play Mozart. Combine that with the sensibility of the singing — when you are listening to a singer and you are trying to imitate that voice in the instruments — and the teamwork, it’s this perfect interaction between every element. It’s another idea of sound.”

In June, just days after “Figaro” wraps at Disney Hall, Dudamel and the philharmonic’s top creative brass will head to London to begin brainstorming the third and final opera in the trilogy, “Così fan tutte.” Another Pritzker-winning Gehry confrere, the Iraqi British architect Zaha Hadid, has been brought in for set duty. And avant-garde fashion designer Hussein Chalayan will take up where Alaïa left off, creating costumes for the performers.

For all the complexity of mounting “Figaro” — with an overture that’s been heard in TV commercials, cartoons and movies too numerous to tally — the project’s aim is simple enough: to make everything old new again.

“People have heard this opera a million times,” said Borda. “To create a freshness around it, a sense of wonder and awe: That’s what we hope this combination will bring. We strive to push the boundaries and inhabit the 21st century.”

‘The Marriage of Figaro’

Where: Walt Disney Concert Hall, downtown Los Angeles

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday; 2 p.m. Sunday; 7:30 p.m. May 23 and 25

Tickets: $18-$210

Information: (323) 850-2000 or