Figaro spirited to the Trump Tower. Peter Sellars's latest operatic experiment

For the past four years, the Summerfare festival, on the campus of the State University of New York here, has been the artistic home of director Peter Sellars. This summer he has devoted his attention to Mozart's ``Le Nozze di Figaro,'' the last of the three Mozart operas with librettos by daPonte that Sellars has staged here. (All three will be back next season.)

Sellars is young and still in the phase of his artistic growth where wild experimentation and risk-taking are the norm. With this production, however, one senses that Sellars is beginning to edit himself, to put the more manic aspects of his stage busy-ness behind him to better allow his serious insights to shine through.

As usual, the time and locale of ``Le Nozze di Figaro'' have been changed, this time from Seville, Spain, in the 18th century to New York City's Trump Tower in the 1980s, ``50 floors above Fifth Avenue,'' where the Almavivas have a spiffy duplex.

This allows set designer Adrianne Lobel to take us to a cramped laundry room (where Susanna and Figaro work around an opened sofa bed), the Countess's drab little bedroom, and a theatrical two-story living room, complete with spectacular Manhattan view, eye-catching modern art, and a spiral staircase leading to an architecturally imposing balcony.

Universality demonstrated

Sellars has populated this cityscape with the neurotic characters of da Ponte's creation (by way of Pierre Augustin Caron Beaumarchais), made to behave as thoroughly up-to-date members of the chic set, upstairs and down. At his best, Sellars demonstrates the universality of this remarkable human comedy. But the revolutionary social aspects of the plot - the menacing subtext - Sellars has not been able to communicate, largely because a servant-master relationship that was considered alarming and dangerous in the 18th century is not particularly shocking today.

The Count remains an arrogant, conceited fellow, the Countess a frustrated, neglected heroine. The other denizens all have richly detailed characters, though it is never clear why they have such free access to what must surely be a high-security duplex.

Another possible setting

In fact, since there is the implication that the Almavivas may, in fact, be Donald and Ivanna Trump themselves (the truly rich as the truly powerful), the opera might better have been set at ``Mar-a-Lago,'' the Trumps' palatial Palm Beach estate, with the new Trump Plaza in the background. Having a complete retinue of staff and guests popping in and out of a resort estate would have made more sense than placing them in this ritzy Manhattan pied-`a-terre.

Nevertheless, there's a lot that is right about this production. Figaro and Susanna have an unusually warm relationship. And I have never seen the trouser role of Cherubino better handled: For once, the mezzo-soprano (or, in this case, soprano) looked like a boy, and acted like a genuine jeans-and-hockey-shirt-clad hellion in the first flush of his teen-age prime.

Sellars lets us see that up-to-the-minute interior design is no guarantee of physical comfort (though it must be asked why all the furniture looks so cheap, and why the Countess's ill-appointed closets are so preposterously small). He vividly captures the Almavivas' chaotic life style and is careful to give everyone real purpose and profile.

Mark Morris has supplied a delectable moment of transcendent lunacy and inventiveness in his choreography for the third-act fandango.

There are still some Sellars excesses, though, particularly concerning the lewder tendencies of the Count and Cherubino. His characters still throw themselves on the floor for no apparent reason. And Sellars still likes to choreograph his ensembles and choruses, right down to the rhythmic walking, ``Hallelujah'' hand waving, and rock-and-roll finger-snapping, which are trivial and distracting in this opera.

Deeply affecting moment

And yet, Sellars does something truly wonderful in the dark fourth act, when Figaro recognizes his beloved Susanna, who appears in disguise, merely by the feel of her hand. Just a few minutes earlier, the Count had been pawing and fondling his wife's hand, thinking it Susanna's. Thus Figaro's moment of recognition is as superb in its ironic juxtaposition as it is deeply sensitive and affecting.

The singing is better than usual for this handpicked Sellars cast. Unfortunately, the three leading ladies all possess timbres similar enough as to be dramatically confusing and aurally wearing. Nevertheless, Jeanne Ommerl'e's performance as Susanna is a standout for its fragile sensitivity and vocal grace. James Maddelena proves an excellent Count in all respects. Sanford Sylvan's characterization as Figaro is too passive visually and vocally, and the result is a weakness at the core of the opera. Susan Larson had vocal problems that made her singing sound effortful the night I heard her, but she acted the role of Cherubino superbly. Jayne West's Countess is honorable.

In the pit, Craig Smith presides over an uncut ``Nozze'' (with an added aria for Cherubino in the third act). It moves along at a sprightly pace and contains some some early flashes of humor. Unfortunately, he allows the recitatives to be performed with long pauses - meant, I suppose, to be tense and insightful, but sounding merely leaden and lifeless.

``Nozze'' will be performed again tonight, and July 24, 27, 29, and 31.

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