March 11, 2012
Figaro - El Paso Times 2012
Michael Chioldi sings opposite Alicia Berneche in a rehearsal for the El Paso Opera production of "Marriage of Figaro."
Michael Chioldi sings opposite Alicia Berneche in a rehearsal for the El Paso Opera production of "Marriage of Figaro."
Rudy Gutierrez/El Paso Times

Doug Pullen - El Paso Times


Director David Grabarkewitz was bored the first time he went to see Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro" at New York's esteemed Metropolitan Opera.
Until, that is, he watched the comic opera about a chaotic day in the life of skirt-chasing aristocrat, his wife, his valet and her maid.

"It turns out É it was hysterical," said Grabarkewitz, who will direct performances of El Paso Opera's production of "Figaro" this week at UTEP's Magoffin Auditorium.

"It's a French farce. It has to do with sexuality and royalty popping in and out of bedrooms," Grabarkewitz said.
It's also, he added, "laugh-out-loud funny."

"Figaro" is a comic opera, or opera buffa, in four acts, based on a 1784 French play by Pierre Beaumarchais, which poked fun at the aristocracy in the runup to the French Revolution.
Essentially a sequel to Beaumarchais' play "The Barber of Seville," it revolves around the lecherous Count Almaviva, who, despite being married to Countess Rosina, lusts for her maid, Susanna, who is about to marry his valet, Figaro. A plot is hatched to embarrass the Count from bedding her.
This was controversial stuff when it debuted in 1786.
"Ultimately, he was poking fun at the aristocracy," said Michael Chioldi, the baritone who plays Count Almaviva. "This was the first opera to throw it in the aristocracy's face."
Beaumarchais' play was once banned in France. To avoid rattling the Austrian monarchy's chains, Vienna-based German composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart enlisted Italian Lorenzo Da Ponte to write the libretto in his native tongue and set it in Seville, Spain.

"Both the play and the opera clearly illuminate the limitations of rank and privilege," according to, "showing us that common sense can readily overcome wealth and power, and that genuine humility easily upstages unwarranted arrogance."
That's where the comedy comes in, Grabarkewitz said.
"It's sometimes naughty, never distasteful, and it's a ton of fun," he said. "But it's 18th-century farce, not 20th-century explicit."

He plans to play up some of the slapstick elements, using a set similar to one Grabarkewitz used when he first staged "Figaro" in 2005 for Opera New Jersey.

"It's essentially played in and out of four free-standing doors. It has almost a 'Laugh-In' appeal, with everyone going in and out. You almost expect to see Goldie Hawn and Ruth Buzzi," he said, referring to two of the '60s TV sketch comedy show's stars.
Grabarkewitz, in his third year as the 18-year-old company's artistic director and general manager, instructed his cast of seasoned professionals and UTEP music theater students to watch videos of TV sketch comedy shows, like "Laugh-In" and "The Carol Burnett Show." He wanted them "to understand what to bring to it, what's funny to the eye."
But comic opera is hard work, especially the timing and physicality of it. " 'Figaro' absorbs all of your energy. Dying is easy. Comedy is hard," Grabarkewitz said with a laugh. "Comedy simply takes time."

This is the third time he has directed "Figaro," and the second time El Paso Opera has staged it. He first took it on seven years ago in New Jersey to "figure out why everybody thought it was great."

While "Figaro" can be plenty funny, it's also a sophisticated social commentary with some of "the most beautiful music in the world," he said, one reason it's one of the world's most popular operas.

For this production, the former New York City Opera resident director called on some friends, well aware that the company doesn't have the money to pay what bigger companies do.
Chioldi, who worked with Grabarkewitz at New York City Opera and has sung at the Met, welcomed the chance to work with his old friend.

"He has such a collaborative way about him. You want to work with him," the baritone said.
Chioli is teamed with another Met vet, soprano Caroline Worra, who plays the Countess. They've worked together several times, but not on "Figaro." "It's great to have that experience with someone," Chioldi said. "There's a comfortability with Caroline."

The part of Figaro will be sung by bass-baritone Ricardo Herrera, a Juárez native, UTEP graduate and director of the Opera Studio at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana.
Soprano Alicia Berneche will sing the role of Susanna, a role she has sung several times, including with Austin Lyric Opera and Milwaukee's Skylight Opera Theatre.
The production reteams Grabarkewitz with lighting designer Barry Steele, costume designer Patricia A. Hibbert and makeup and wig designer Sondra Nottingham, all of whom worked on last year's "Madama Butterfly," the company's first full opera in two years.

The move from the 2,500-seat Abraham Chavez Theatre to the 1,100-seat Magoffin Auditorium was for two reasons, said Grabarkewitz, who recently returned from a "transforming" UTEP-sponsored trip to Bhutan to direct its first Western opera.
First, he wanted to strengthen the company's ties with UTEP, with which it has a Young Artists Program.
But also, he said, "Figaro" was written 100 years before large-scale grand opera began.

"It's an appropriate size," he said. "'Figaro' is not grand opera. It does not have big, moving pieces."

Doug Pullen may be reached at; 546-6397. Read Pullen My Blog at Follow him on Twittyer at @dougpullen.

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