The transfer of Figaro from pre-revolutionary Seville to the 52d-floor luxury apartment of the wealthy, hedonistic Count Almaviva leaves intact the rigid social structure that attracted the opera's creators in the first place. Figaro is the doorman; Susanna the maid. The count's power is financial, and his wife's isolation and sadness are those of the beautiful and isolated woman enclosed in that glass and steel tower. Lawyers, tradesmen, maintenance and security people had their place in 1786 just as they do in high-rise life.
Within these distinct social levels, the central humanistic message blossoms. Sellars has made Figaro less a political drama than a deeply human one, in which familiar operatic types become vivid and affecting people.
By making those figures New Yorkers, he has placed them in a vernacular idiom and revivified them. Cherubino becomes a gawky teenage street hockey player wearing a New York Rangers jersey - with shoulder pads - and Susanna and the countess become women whose social distinctions are dissolved by shared emotional needs, women capable of equal and astonishing sensuality in their scenes with Cherubino.
Sellars' gift for the powerful scene makes familiar moments freshly dramatic. The countess sings "Dove sono . . ." while alone on the coldly modern balcony of her glass-walled living room. And the count, baffled by the events taking place, has a kind of mad scene in the second act.
The director's gifts are prodigally used. The end of Act 1 is choreographed for high comedy, with the characters semaphoring their gestures; and in Act 3, with Susanna and the countess plotting to embarrass the count, their duet has a dreamlike unreality emphasized by their lying down, turning, curling, rising and pirouetting.
For all the novel setting, Sellars' real achievement lies in using the musical material for dramatic and theatrical effect. Nothing is cut; in fact, he has found an aria for Cherubino to sing in Act 3, where Mozart had indicated the song but had not written it. More than that, he has his singers treat recitative as the speech of dramatic players. Sudden silence, hushed responses, carefully timed statements heighten the impact of every line.
The singers stress the text by clear exposition of the musical line, just as the orchestra, conducted by Craig Smith, stresses balance and clarity.
To give greater linear force to the production, Sellars has divided the opera into two large acts. Between the usual Act 1 and 2, he bridges the scene change with a movement from Mozart's Serenade (K. 375), music closely related in mood to the music played before it and after.
The cast is headed by Sanford Sylvan in the title role; Jeanne Ommerle, Susanna; James Maddalena, the count, and Jayne West, the countess. They are intelligent, strongly differentiated and highly athletic ensemble members.
The opera will be performed again tonight, Sunday, Wednesday, and July 22, 24, 27, 29 and 31.