'Figaro' sequel is one of many Preview: 'Cherubin,' presented by the Peabody Opera Theater, is a light and pretty end to the famed trilogy.

March 11, 1998|By Judith Green | Judith Green,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

The French playwright Beaumarchais thought of his great "Figaro" trilogy as a political statement that undermined the rigid class structure of 18th-century Europe.

But somehow, in "The Barber of Seville" and "The Marriage of Figaro," he got past polemics and created characters who took on a life of their own.

Figaro and Susannah, the clever barber and his equally smart wife, and the hotblooded young page, Cherubino, have been adopted by playwrights and composers ever since they made their literary debut in 1784. There are 12 opera settings of "Barber" and seven of "Figaro," as well as 15 with "Figaro" characters, listed in "The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera."

Of the many sequels, prequels and just plain take-offs on the "Figaro" plays, Jules Massenet's 1905 opera "Cherubin" (he used the French spelling) may be the slightest -- but also the prettiest.

Fittingly, the Peabody Opera will present "Cherubin" tonight through Saturday as its own sequel to Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro," which it performed last fall.

The French revolutionary playwright (1732-1799), who added the aristocratic "Beaumarchais" to his own plebeian name of Pierre Agustin Caron, had his own ideas of how the "Figaro" saga should end. In the infrequently performed third play of the trilogy, "La mere coupable" ("The Guilty Mother"), Cherubino seems to have gotten his wish to seduce (and be seduced by) the beautiful older woman, Countess Almaviva.

The fruit of their affair is a son who grows up to marry the illegitimate daughter of Count Almaviva, after five acts of betrayal, tears and threats of vengeance ending in general forgiveness.

But "Cherubin" is less fraught with sin and remorse. Its lightweight plot, based on a play by Francis de Croisset, is a series of romantic affairs and midnight trysts for Cherubino, now a 17-year-old officer of the guard whose military career seems mostly an excuse to carry a sword -- a phallic symbol of the most obvious type.

"It's made somewhat clear that people don't always sleep alone," says Roger Brunyate, director of opera at the Peabody Conservatory of Music, of the nocturnal comings and goings of "Cherubin."

Here Cherubino is delightfully torn between the amorous invitations of a countess and a baroness, both married, and the seductive charms of a prima ballerina called L'Ensoleillad (whose stage name means "sunshine"). Eventually, though he gains an enviable amount of boudoir experience, true love triumphs and he returns to his hometown sweetheart.

He's a far cry from the Cherubino in "Figaro Gets a Divorce" (1937), darkest of the sequels, by the Hungarian playwright Odon von Horvath. (In 1963, it was turned into an expressionist opera by Giselher Klebe.) In this gritty black comedy about the human debris left in the wake of idealistic revolutions, Cherubino is a survivor, a hard-edged nightclub owner.

Nor is he the starry-eyed youth who costs the countess so much emotional turmoil in "La mere coupable" (which was set as an opera in 1966 by Darius Milhaud and which served as the opera-within-an-opera in John Corigliano's "The Ghosts of Versailles" in 1992).

But the youth of "Cherubin" is very close, in spirit and method, to the boy just awakening to the charms of women in "Figaro," both play and opera.

And both are trouser roles (men played by women), common enough in 18th-century opera because of the need for a youth to be sung by a light voice, but a fading convention as opera crossed into the 20th century.

Originally, the title role in "Cherubin" was to have been sung by Sybil Sanderson, a soprano from Sacramento, Calif., who was the mistress of de Croisset (actually a Belgian writer whose real name was Frantz Wiener). But she died unexpectedly in 1903, at the age of 37, and the role went to Mary Garden, another American, who had premiered the role of Melisande in Debussy's "Pelleas et Melisande" in 1902. L'Ensoleillad was sung by Lina Cavalleri, known as the most beautiful woman of her day.

Massenet himself appears in the opera as the Philosopher, an old man commenting sagely on the boy's zesty exploits. With most of his successes behind him -- he composed just one more opera of significance, the autumnal "Don Quichotte" -- Massenet was still a consummate craftsman, an assured melodist and a skilled writer for the voice. He died in 1912, at the age of 70.

As to the quality of "Cherubin," Brunyate, stage director John Lehmeyer and conductor Hajime Teri Murai all say it's a singer's delight.

"The real point is to come to grips with a full role of any kind," says Brunyate of the young cast. "It teaches them how to approach a role and to set standards for themselves."

Speaking of both singers and orchestra players, Murai says: "Opera teaches them that music is about something. It gives them more of a palette to work with. Otherwise it's just prettily played notes."

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