The Women Outshine the Men in WNO’s Marriage of Figaro

United KingdomUnited Kingdom  Mozart, Le Nozze di Figaro (Revival premiere): Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera, / Anthony Negus (conductor), Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 25.2.2012 (GPu)

Conductor: Anthony Negus
Director: Lluís Pasqual
Revival Director: Caroline Chaney
Designer: Paco Azorín
Costume designer: Franca Squarciapino
Lighting Designer: Albert Faura
Choreographer: Montse Colome
Chorus Master: Stephen Harris

Figaro: David Soar
Susanna: Elizabeth Watts
Count Almaviva: Dario Solari
Countess Almaviva: Rebecca Evans
Cherubino: Jurgita Adamonyté
Dr. Bartolo: Henry Waddington
Marcellina: Sarah Pring
Don Basilio: Timothy Robinson
Antonio: Julian Boyce
Don Curzio: Timothy Robinson
Barbarina: Joanne Boag
Bridesmaids: Anitra Blaxhall, Amanda Baldwin

This co-production with Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu was first performed in Cardiff in February 2009, when Bill Kenny reviewed it. Looking back to Bill’s review after seeing this premiere of the revival of the production, I find myself in full agreement with almost all that he said about it. The updating to 1920/30s Spain has an undeniable stylishness to it, but makes nonsense of the whole socio-historical meaning of the work. The implicitly revolutionary nature of the work (politically speaking), which had led to the banning of Da Ponte’s original by Beaumarchais, may have got slightly watered down in the adaptation, but only slightly (and as David Cairns has pointed out Mozart’s music actually reinserts more than a little of the social punch by refusing to adhere to the musical class-distinctions of the day). The Count’s designs on Susanna inescapably packed a threat and a meaning that was more than merely personal. His planned reassertion of his droit de seigneur where Susanna is concerned would have spoken of a very real menace to the original audience, a menace which, in the transposed setting and its social world, seemed so completely implausible as to be effectively non-existent. Indeed real menace was absent on other counts (pun intended) too: while decently sung, Dario Solari’s Count was a disappointingly unthreatening stage presence, devoid of any convincing sense of the sexually predatory.

The set is good to look at, with a kind of spare elegance; the lighting is good and Act IV’s non-naturalistic wood works quite well; mirrors were perhaps rather overdone as an idea and the abundance of reflections was sometimes merely distracting. A nice touch was the way in which the dance-metaphor of Figaro’s initial cavatina (‘Se vuol ballare’) was taken as a hint for all kinds of non-intrusive stage business, so that, as Bill Kenny aptly put it: “As Figaro predicts in ‘Se vuol ballare’, Count Almaviva – and pretty well everybody else for that matter – does dance to his tune in this production.  George Bernard Shaw once said that ‘Dancing (is) the vertical expression of a horizontal desire, legalised by music.’ If that’s anything like the idea that director Lluis Pasqual had in mind for this production, then he made the point more than clearly. There was dancing at almost every turn: Susanna did ballet exercises in the bedroom, the gardener reporting Cherubino’s escape bounced about with a potted plant and the concluding fandango in Act IV was a riot of… (ahem).. well, jiggery-pokery. And, of course, one might also understand the dance as a political metaphor, prompting questions as to who, given time, will call the tune politically (the French Revolution was only a few years away). But, again, that interesting dimension in the production was largely neutralised by the updating.

Vocally the stand-out performance was that of Rebecca Evans. She brought a weight and depth of emotion to a production which was fairly heavily slanted towards the humorous (sometimes in a slightly laboured fashion). It was in her that the rich humanity of the work found fullest expression; her performance of ‘Dovo sono’ would alone have justified a long trip to Cardiff. Elizabeth Watts was an engagingly lively Susanna and proved herself an excellent team-player in the ensembles, as well as a convincing solo voice as in her arias and duets, which were sung with an unforced attention to vocal line balanced with some persuasive detail of vocal characterisation. She inhabited the character very convincingly, persuading one of the reality of a truth once articulated by Nicholas Hytner: “For everyone but Susanna, the opera is a voyage of self-discovery. Susanna seems to know herself from the first bar of the opera’. Indeed, it was the female voices that were most impressive on this first night. Sarah Pring’s Marcellina was well acted, both as an initial comic butt and then with a reclaimed dignity as a newly discovered mother, and well-sung (even if the character’s finest – and most significant – aria was cut from Act IV). Jurgita Adamonyté as Cherubino was impressive; ‘Voi che sapete’ was nicely turned, and throughout Adamonyté’s characterisation was well-judged, amusing but never absurd, able to persuade us that for all his excesses Cherubino is capable of real (if immature) emotion – so that one can recognise Cherubino’s place in Da Ponte’s and Mozart’s exploration of the many different meanings of the word love. Joanne Boag’s contribution as Barberina extended that exploration plausibly, and was sung very competently.

It was the men who, to a degree, disappointed. David Soar’s Figaro was sung attractively enough and was vocally secure, but was largely without the spark of wit and invention that characterises a really outstanding interpretation of the character; his stage-presence, similarly, was a bit on the stiff side and a bit lacking in the desirable vivacity. I have admired much of Soar’s work recently – but this doesn’t appear to be a role in which he really feels at home. Dario Solari’s Count, again, let no one down vocally speaking, but as a theatrical performance it established very little by way of the necessary chemistry, either with the women in his life or with Figaro as his ‘rival’. Timothy Robinson created an amusingly oleaginous Don Basilio, and Henry Waddington was a pompous (and somewhat ponderous) Dr. Bartolo.

At the risk of having Bill Kenny sue me for plagiarism, I will quote his review of the original production one last time. Bill judged it to be “A curate’s egg … a quirky but watchable production with an excellent team of soloists”. More or less my sentiments, though I think that rather more that was truly excellent was, on this occasion, to be found amongst the women than the men.

Glyn Pursglove