Wedded Bliss 

The Marriage of Figaro
By Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart; libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, with English translation by Andrew Porter

Opera Theatre of St. Louis

The subtitle of The Marriage of Figaro is, in Andrew Porter's translation, "A Day of Madness." What wedding day isn't? The marriage party in Mozart's opera, however, has to contend with inappropriate folk letching after both bride and bridegroom, an adolescent boy behaving like a butterfly in heat, a drunken gardener, and a broken-hearted wife, who has some of Figaro's best music to sing. Many think Figaro is Mozart's best opera, so the best of its music is among the best music there is anywhere. The poor wife, the Countess Almaviva, is supposed to be a young woman -- early 20s, perhaps -- but very few sopranos that young or who look that young are up to the part. Pamela Armstrong certainly looks the part, however, and her voice is first-class. Warm, full, honeyed, it soars in ensemble and stirs in solo. Armstrong's performance alone makes Opera Theatre of St. Louis' production of The Marriage of Figaro, which opened last Thursday at the Loretto-Hilton Center, worth a visit, but the rest of the cast, particularly Sari Gruber as Susanna and George Cordes as Figaro himself, is more than worthy to sing alongside Armstrong.

But great voices are of little use without a conductor who knows how to cherish them. Having neglected, in my review of Othello last week, to pay proper (and well-deserved) respect to its conductor, Stephen Lord, let me make amends by expressing my admiration for Figaro's conductor, Stefan Lano. Not only does he maintain an exquisite balance between singers and the handsomely rehearsed orchestra, but he also supplies an opulent, full-bodied continuo with cello, double bass and himself on fortepiano. He has also supplied some charming vocal ornamentation, which many musicians fear to do. Mozart is said to have written the vocal parts exactly the way he wished them sung to avoid the excessive stunt-singing common in his day. Lano's intelligent and tactful additions, however, seem perfectly suited to the music and provide further evidence of the singers' control, artfulness and vocal abilities. No one is in the least brassy or shrill; in fact, Lano and the singers present as musical a Marriage of Figaro as I've ever heard.

The cast can act, too. The revelation scene in Act 3, for instance, is restrained both in the singing and the acting, which somehow makes it all the funnier. No double takes, no bulging of eyeballs -- just six people absolutely astonished by what they are discovering. Now, with singer/actors of such quality and a libretto full of the most charming silliness of any opera in the repertory, you'd think that Christopher Alden, the stage director, would play it as straight as Figaro can be played. Instead, he has gone for something far beyond mere concept opera: He's into as ruthless a deconstruction as one can imagine. The costumes are dumbfoundingly eclectic; the set, an exercise in scenic minimalism; the props, alarming and occasionally cheaply gimmicky; the action, sometimes awfully funny but often sophomoric (and I mean high-school sophomoric), maddeningly, unacceptably obscure and crude. Yes, there is a dark subtext in Figaro for Alden to exploit, but he wants it both ways: The subtext becomes preeminent, the farce disappears, and feverishly pubescent naughtiness prevails. W.S. Gilbert once said that you could always get a laugh by having someone sit on a pork pie, and Alden's chairs are full of pastry.

But the funny thing is, not only do the singer/actors go along with him, but so does Lano, who goofs around, quoting wildly from all over during recitatives, and so does Christopher Akerlind, OTSL's resident genius of a lighting designer, who messes with his control board like a preppie on pot. And if they can fall in with such nonsense, so can I, and so I did, especially during Acts 3 and 4. But the staging is really a commentary on, not a production of, The Marriage of Figaro, and I'd hardly recommend it to anyone who doesn't know the opera already. But for those who do -- and who still have a little elastic in the waistbands of their souls -- this production, especially the music, is quite an evening of Mozart, even if it's Mozart upside down.

-- Harry Weber

Book by Dean Pitchford and Walter Bobbie, music by Tom Snow, lyrics by Dean Pitchford

Fox Theatre

The musical Footloose gets its worst moments out of the way right at the top. I was about to say that it puts its worst foot forward, but the foot -- the dancing -- is the best part of this show. It starts with dancing, which is good: high-school kids dancing, like Grease, updated with a touch of Rent's style -- a low-Rent Grease, as one wag put it. The problem is that the performers are singing while they dance, and I couldn't get a word of what they were singing. I don't know whether it was the performers' fault or -- definitely the case sometimes -- a too-loud pit orchestra or -- definitely the case most of the time -- the fuzzy sound system at the Fox, where the show played last week. But when I sit at a show for five or 10 minutes with no idea of what is going on, I tend to lose interest.

Eventually, the actors stopped singing and dancing and talked. The talk came through clearly enough for me to find out that the main character, a high-school senior named Ren, was moving from Chicago to the small town of Bomont because his father had left the family and they were going to live with his mother's relatives. (If you saw the movie, which I didn't, you knew all this.) This Bomont is one weird little town. By city ordinance, no dancing is allowed there. I know churches that don't allow dancing, but a whole town? Then you get the cliched characters out of some made-for-TV movie -- the rigid preacher, his long-suffering wife, his rebellious daughter, the town bullies (that's almost everybody in Bomont) -- who make life hell for newcomer Ren.

But once you get past all this, and either accept it or don't, and put your mind to sleep and forget about credibility, the show can be kinda fun. Credit director Walter Bobbie, best known for his staging of the current production of Chicago, for much of the show's crisp, lively look. Add a major assist from choreographer A.C. Ciulla, who's especially inventive with the gym equipment in the Act 1 finale. John Lee Beatty's sets make the most of a few shrewdly chosen pieces -- rows of lockers for the high-school hallway, neon tubes for the burger palace -- complemented by Ken Billington's lights and Toni-Leslie James' costumes. Tom Snow's music and Dean Pitchford's lyrics sound as if they're manufactured by the yard, but they're machined well.

A strong cast helped make the evening bearable, led by Joe Machota as Ren and Niki Scalera as the preacher's daughter. Daren Kelly, the best voice of the evening, even created some sympathy for the minister, and Mary Gordon Murray made his wife almost credible. Christian Borle nearly stole the show as Ren's comic buddy, joined by Stephanie St. James as his girlfriend.

Given the raw material, Footloose could have been much worse.
-- Bob Wilcox

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