Classic Figaro Production with Cosmopolitan Cast

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Royal Opera /  Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor), Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 16.9.2013. (JPr)


Le nozze di Figaro c ROH/Mark Douet
Le nozze di Figaro c ROH/Mark Douet

Figaro: Luca Pisaroni
Susanna:  Lucy Crowe
Cherubino:  Renata Pokupić
Count Almaviva:  Christopher Maltman
Countess Almaviva: Maria Bengtsson
Bartolo:   Carlos Chausson
Marcellina:   Helene Schneiderman
Don Basilio:   Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Don Curzio:    Alasdair Elliott
Antonio:   Lynton Black
Barbarina:    Mary Bevan
Director:  David McVicar
Design:   Tanya McCallin
Lighting design:   Paule Constable
Movement Director:  Leah Hausman

I enjoyed this production when I saw one of the earlier revivals but Sir David McVicar appears to have returned to refresh this sixth outing of his 2006 staging of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro as the second opera of Covent Garden’s new season and if anything they put on in subsequent months is better than this, it will certainly be something worth seeing!

The composer’s 1786 Le nozze di Figaro (The Marriage of Figaro) is often regarded as one of those operas that needs no real introduction but that applies only to those who are opera-goers already. I was fascinated how true Royal Opera’s director of opera was in his accessible Opera Essentials introduction in the programme, when he revealed how ‘One of the great stage directors of the 1970s and 80s, Götz Friedrich, used to teach Opera Stage Direction at the Musikhochschule in Hamburg. And he used to put his new students to a test: if somebody could tell him the story of Figaro in one go without making any mistakes, he would pay them 20 D-Mark. According to the story, he never had to pay.’

Confusing plot notwithstanding, it remains – as it is frequently referred to as – ‘the perfect first opera’ and this explain the interesting audience it drew to Covent Garden many, particularly in the cheaper seats, clearly in an opera house for the first time. For me, the score is possibly Mozart’s finest operatic achievement: it contains so much comedy, romance, jealously joy, envy, forgiveness and reconciliation, all set against some memorable tunes. With matters of illicit love, passion, social climbing, alongside the responsibilities and inequalities of privilege, Le nozze di Figaro has much in common with the current international success of TV’s Downton Abbey, also about the machinations upstairs and downstairs of inherited wealth and their servants. In fact, with the sophisticated style of this Le nozze di Figaro staging and the performances elicited in this revival, it could almost have been the Italian version of Downton Abbey – The Opera!

It is based on Beaumarchais’s 1784 play La folle journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro, and his sequel Le Barbier de Séville (The Barber of Seville). The latter is familiar to opera audiences through Rossini’s great 1816 prequel in which Count Almaviva, with Figaro’s contrivance, woos Rosina away from her old ward and would-be husband, Doctor Bartolo. Beaumarchais continued their story and in Figaro, the Count is now married to Rosina but their marriage is in trouble because of his philandering. Now no longer a barber, Figaro is the Count’s valet, is engaged to Susanna the Countess’s maid and the Count’s intended conquest. Bartolo is seeking revenge on Figaro for stealing Rosina away from him, with the help of the rather obsequious music-master, Don Basilio. Helping add to the fun are Cherubino, a love-struck teenager, Marcellina, a blackmailing former duenna, Antonio, a drunken gardener and Barbarina, his young daughter. This is more than enough for a ‘folle journée’ – a crazy day indeed – and I hope this is a useful summary to help any future aspiring opera directors!

(The most inflammatory passage in the original play, which is eliminated from the libretto, is an attack on privilege based on birth. This is only subliminally present in Figaro but what is more central to the play – and subsequently to the opera – is the idea of droit du seigneur which allowed noblemen to sleep with their female servants on their wedding night, even though the practice had been defunct for centuries. If Beaumarchais did not exactly see the French Revolution coming, his play reflected what many educated Frenchmen were thinking at the time.)

This is clearly one of the classic opera productions of this generation: with the help of Tanya McCallin’s handsome and realistic designs and Paul Constable’s subtle lighting, David McVicar updates the opera in a familiar Jonathan Miller way – and with an equally keen eye for negligible detail – and brings it to us in ‘a French chateau in 1830’. To be honest, the naturalness and believability of the acting and spoken dialogue was the greatest success of this performance: the recitative was done with exceptional care for its meaning and dramatic import and was worthy of any great Shakespearian comedy. (Without all the singing it could successfully work as a ‘straight play’ – albeit in Italian!) Actually, the director seems to have cranked up the ‘sex comedy’ part of the story as I do not recall quite so much leering or groping before – it is nothing that will offend anyone as it is all in the theatrical tradition of farces of this kind.

The overture is accompanied by onstage business, including a wonderful vignette by an elderly maid mopping the floor and she returns and takes centre stage at the curtain call. First shown is a sumptuous long, window-lined, gallery and then Figaro and Susanna’s rather bare and dusty soon-to-be bedroom moves smoothly onto the stage. The Countess’s own room is a little sparsely decorated, apart from an ornate bed, but otherwise typical of the period, whilst the final act turns what has been ‘a hall in the castle’ into a hint of a garden setting by involving lowering trees and falling leaves. This provides the backdrop for the mistaken identity denouement, involving the Countess and Susanna disguised as each other and ends with the Count tricked into submission and begging his wife’s forgiveness.

This opera must be a joy to conduct and once again the excellence on stage was matched by some fine conducting, this time from Sir John Eliot Gardiner. As is typical of English conductors of Mozart his account was fleet-footed and lightweight whilst allowing there to be all the humour, pathos, happiness or sorrow an excellent Figaro reading requires. The orchestra seemed immaculately prepared with a nod towards ‘authenticity’: the tone of the strings was rather pared down with little use of vibrato and the woodwind seemed rather mellow. The only misjudgement was the natural horns that were suitably soft-toned but brayed a little uncertainly at times. However the balance of the orchestral accompaniment was nearly perfect, allowing this to be the commentary on the action and the characters that it must be.

The Royal Opera fielded another fine multinational ensemble of singers for this opera. Whilst not all were the finest voices you could hear in their roles – for instance some were much lighter than those heard in earlier years – with their evident chemistry this did not matter as much as it might and just about could justify the very high price Covent Garden charges for many of its seats. Luca Pisaroni made his Royal Opera debut as a charismatic Figaro, and sounded more of the lyric baritone the part needs rather than the bass-baritone Pisaroni is supposed to be. He sang a rousing ‘Non più andrai’ yet had all the darkness and bitterness needed for his Act IV ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’. For the ‘home team’ British baritone Christopher Maltman sang with wonderful security and focused tone and commanded the stage with imperious authority as the Count who is always going to get what he wants – until he doesn’t! His Act III ‘Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’ was vigorous and chockfull of dramatic inflection.

Any weakness in this performance involved the women. Maria Bengtsson was suitably downcast and affecting as the Countess, her Act III ‘Dove sono’ was a very poised and heartfelt summation of her unhappiness. Singing the role of Susanna for the first time with the Royal Opera was Lucy Crowe, a very engaging artist with a winning smile. She was the high-spirited catalyst for all the events of the opera and her Act IV ‘Deh, vieni, non tardar’ was lovingly sung. Renata Pokupić completed the trio of central female characters as a charmingly cheeky – if not very boyish – Cherubino. Appearing in the latter half of the opera, English soprano Mary Bevan was Barbarina, a role with such innate charm that it is a gift for a young singer at the start of their career. My main concern was that all these women’s voices sounded too similar and on some occasions – if they were singing together – it was often difficult to distinguish who was singing what and so discern any differences between their vocal lines.

This time the ‘United Nations’ of singers extended to most the character roles and although I would have liked to see more British singers employed each of them was wonderful in their own way and gave well-rounded portrayals; Helen Schneiderman – not looking the ‘old woman’ of the libretto – was Marcellina, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt was Don Basilio and Lynton Black was Antonio. Carlos Chausson gave an eye-catching and superbly nuanced performance as a ‘fragrant’ Bartolo – but I still must conclude by asking whether there was no one closer to home than Spain who could have sung this part just as well?

Jim Pritchard


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