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Los Angeles calls upon star French designers for 'Figaro' opera

By Eric Kelsey

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Count Almaviva, muscles bulging and resplendent in white, struts like a peacock across the stage belting his baritone at his countess, who sits in a flowing red gown against a sparse backdrop of sleek, modernist lines.

It is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro."

But unlike the countless productions of the 1786 opera, the Los Angeles Philharmonic has handed the reins over to star French architect Jean Nouvel and fashion designer Azzedine Alaia for an unorthodox take on what is sometimes called the most perfect opera.

"Figaro," known as "Le Nozze di Figaro" in the original Italian, is part of the Philharmonic's three-year opera program that pairs top architects and fashion designers with Mozart's three operas with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte. It runs through Saturday.

"These are the crown jewels of Mozart's operas," Los Angeles Philharmonic President and CEO Deborah Borda told Reuters, adding that the orchestra has no intention of turning into an operatic company.

The opera, set outside of Seville, Spain, tells the story of how Count Almaviva attempts to intercede in the wedding of his valet Figaro to the countess' maid Susanna so the count can take her as his lover.

Last year, the company produced "Don Giovanni" with architect Frank Gehry as set designer and costumes by local fashion house Rodarte. British architect Zaha Hadid and designer Hussein Chalayan have been tabbed for "Cosi Fan Tutte" in 2014.

The Philharmonic's Walt Disney Concert Hall is an architectural landmark in itself, designed by Gehry in his trademark metal-clad, free-form expressionist shapes.

The biggest challenge facing the architects - each of whom have won the Pritzker Prize, their field's top honor - is staging an opera at a venue designed for an orchestra, Borda said.

"The building is both an obstacle and a beauty in overcoming that," she added.

'STRIPPING DOWN'

Nouvel, 67, who is best known for a distinct and smooth modernist style and has designed performance halls in Copenhagen, Lyon and Minneapolis, said the space makes designing the set part architectural exercise.

"We have a special case as we are using a concert hall with no backstage nor conventional theater facilities as a stage for an opera, with not only frontal views but with an audience on 270 degrees," Nouvel said in an email.

Nouvel's sparse set slopes from back to front with conductor Gustavo Dudamel's orchestra in a shallow oval pit near the front. He also uses a staircase leading up to the deep-red backdrop to give the space added depth.

"It's about finding three very different solutions to performing a full-on opera in a concert hall that wasn't built to support these kind of things," "Figaro" director Christopher Alden said, referring to his role alongside Nouvel and Alaia.

"I think that's a very good venue to do that kind of thing because it's not on stage and we're not doing a lot of props," he added. "We're stripping down to some really simple images and focusing on the relationships between the people and these pieces."

Alden said that the modern design and dress only drives home how the story has been able to connect to the present day more than two centuries after it was first written.

"To me, it's a human rights struggle. Like so many human rights struggles, it's not so different then than people are now," Alden said of Figaro and Susanna's plot to foil the count's attempt at stalling their wedding.

"What seems to loom large now, the chief struggles for gay marriage, for example, is not such a different thing," he added.

(Reporting by Eric Kelsey; Editing by Will Dunham)

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