Tufts’ production of ‘Le Nozze di Figaro’ adds 1920s aesthetic to the 18th-century opera

A promotional poster for the Tufts Opera Ensemble's rendition of 'Le Nozze Di Figaro.' Courtesy Tufts Opera Ensemble

This weekend, the Tufts Opera Ensemble is tackling Mozart’s famous opera “Le Nozze Di Figaro” (1786). Directors Carol Mastrodomenico and Thomas Stumpf, faculty members of the music department, have put a twist on the well-known classical opera, depicting it in a colorful rendition of 1920s Spain instead of the original 18th-century setting. 

The Opera Ensemble will also perform alongside the Tufts Chamber Orchestra, a 29-student ensemble directed by John Page, director of orchestral activities at Tufts, according to Mastrodomenico. 

According to Stephanie Evans, one of the actors playing the lead role of Susanna, this particular production is an ambitious undertaking.

“Usually we perform scenes or one-act operas during the semesters, but this is the first time in about eight years that we’ve done a full opera,” she said. “[We’ve done] nothing of this scope ever really before.”

According to Evans, a senior, the Opera Ensemble has been working on this production since September. In addition to staging the entirety of the 600-page score, the Ensemble will also be performing the work in its original Italian. If you’re going to see it this weekend, fear not — there will be English supertitles projected above the show, so it will be easy to understand.

“The dialogue is going to be like watching a foreign movie with subtitles,” said sophomore Chloe Malouf, one of the actors playing Cherubino. “It’s the same thing. You’ll be able to follow it very easily.”

Mastrodomenico emphasized the fact that the Opera Ensemble is collaborating with the Chamber Orchestra.

“It is such a rare opportunity to sing with orchestra,” Mastrodomenico told the Daily in an email. “The collaborations with the orchestra, the academic Music faculty and the Theater Department are [a] perk to doing a project like this.”

The production is also double-cast, meaning that there is a different cast in the Thursday and Saturday shows from the Friday and Sunday shows. This arrangement gives more students the opportunity to perform.

“Tufts has so much talent that, at least for some of the female roles, there were more people than named roles,” Evans said. “It gives people more opportunities to play such a big role, which is exciting, because some people might not have gotten to do it otherwise.”

“Le Nozze di Figaro” is an opera buffa, meaning that its story is comic. Mozart based his opera on the historically controversial play “Le Mariage de Figaro” (1778) by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, which was originally banned by Emperor Joseph II for its political content. However, after the poet and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte removed the controversial material while translating the play to the Italian libretto (the script of an opera), Joseph II allowed Mozart to compose the accompanying music.

The result is a boisterous, comic masterpiece filled with romance, deception and drama that critiques social class amidst its more humorous moments. The story features Figaro and Susanna, two engaged servants working under Count Almaviva and Countess Rosina. Disguises and trickery abound as the couple, along with other members of the count’s household, create an elaborate plot against the count after learning of his advances toward Susanna.

“[The show is] hilarious,” said Nathalie Andrade, a senior playing the countess on Thursday and Saturday. “It’s as ridiculous as a Spanish soap opera.”

Malouf said that while she loves the history of the opera, its relevance continues to impress her as well.

“This show has so much history behind it,” she explained. “That’s why I love opera … because you’re literally looking into the reality TV show of the 1700s, yet it applies. Yet it’s normal. And it connects us to people who lived hundreds of years ago. They have the exact same problems as us. They had … old guys hitting on your girlfriend. And they had jealousy and schemes and lovesick teenage boys like me. It’s all the same.”

Though the original opera took place in 18th-century Spain, Mastrodomenico decided to move this production’s setting to the 1920s.

“I chose the ’20s as a concept because it worked well in still defining the characters,” Mastrodomenico said. “Figaro and Susanna are beloved servants, and after shows like “Downton Abbey” (2010–2015), ’20s servants uniforms are easily identified and relatable.”

“I also liked the idea of borrowing from the gangster look to costume the count, who acts more like a gangster or villain then a gentleman,” she added. “This also makes Figaro, of the servant class, look more like a gentleman than his master, and that was one of the main ideas behind Mozart’s choosing the Beaumarchais play Figaro is based on.”

In addition to the opera’s applicability to this era, the switch also gave Mastrodomenico the opportunity to define a colorful aesthetic for the show.

“She’s using only colors that were shown through cubism in Spain in the 1920s,” Malouf said. “In the outfits, not only do you have the 1928 style, but you also have really strong orange and yellow and reds and purples.”

Mastrodomenico explained that she wanted to reinforce the opera’s Spanish setting, especially because the words are in Italian.

“When I spoke with Anna Britton, our set designer,” she said, “I showed her the works of cubist painters Joan Miró and of course Picasso, but also surrealist painter Dalí, for their color and boldness. I also chose pictures of Moorish architecture to show Anna, and she came up with the brilliant arches.”

These influences are immediately apparent on the set. As Mastrodomenico mentioned, the Moorish-inspired arches are the focal point of the colorful scenery, and many bright flowers and props reflect the lighthearted spirit of Mozart’s opera.

While the project is ambitious, and some members have more experience with opera, the Opera Ensemble includes students from a wide variety of majors, many of whom are new to opera or even singing.

“We have a wide range of people in the Figaro cast,” Mastrodomenico said. “Our Figaro, John Arnold, is an engineer, one of the countesses is a film and media studies major, our count is a biochemistry major who is planning to take the MCAT in March. Our chorus is made up of some freshmen and some that are new to singing. So it is either remarkable or insane that we took on this project. I like to think of it as remarkable.”

The ensemble has been working on this production for the past five months, and Evans, Malouf and Mastrodomenico all noted how much they have enjoyed getting to work with this group.

“I love everyone,” Malouf said. “Everyone in the ensemble is amazing. I love working with Carol, Stephanie. I love working with everyone in opera ensemble. They’re all so talented and so kind.”

Mastrodomenico also commented on how impressed she was that the students were able to learn and practice so much material.

“Watching the students get handed a 600-page score in September and seeing them go from ‘This is impossible’ to ‘This is unbelievable, we did this,’ is the best part,” she said.

Malouf urged everyone to attend the performance, the first of which was just last night.

“This specific opera is probably the best one,” Malouf said. “Like, ever. It is such an amazing opera, and the fact that we’re having it at this school and that students are performing it is such an incredible thing …  I really think everyone should come see the show. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I don’t know when the next time we’ll be able to do a show like this is … but this is the one.”

“Le Nozze de Figaro” opened last night in Distler Performance Hall in the Granoff Music Center. The remaining performances are tonight, Feb. 16 and Feb. 17 at 8 p.m. and Feb. 18 at 3 p.m., in the same location. Tickets are available at $10 for students and seniors and at $15 for general admission at the Granoff Music Center Box Office.