United Kingdom Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Grange Festival Chorus, Academy of Ancient Music / Richard Egarr (conductor & fortepiano), Barbican Hall, London. 4.7.2019. (AK)
Count Almaviva – Toby Girling
Countess Almaviva – Simona Mihai
Susanna – Ellie Laugharne
Figaro – Roberto Lorenzi
Cherubino – Wallis Giunta
Marcellina – Louse Winter
Basilio – Ben Johnson
Bartolo – Jonathan Best
Antonio – Richard Suart
Barbarina – Rowan Pierce
This presentation of Le nozze di Figaro was meant to be a concert performance of the full staged production which enjoyed six sell-out shows at the Grange Festival last month. However, the term ‘concert performance’ is, arguably, inaccurate. It is true that orchestra and conductor were on stage as during a regular concert. However, all solo singers and, with less mobility, even the chorus acted the plot convincingly.
Space for stage business was not as plentiful as on many operatic stages but all solo singers had enough space in front of the orchestra (and sometimes behind it or within) to deliver action. Indeed, this was a fully enjoyable operatic performance, minus sets but with plenty of inventions to make up for the lack of sets and lack of space. And, with this setting, none of the singers had problems hearing the orchestra and, specifically, the continuo accompaniment of the recitativo sections; singers and instrumentalists were ideally integrated. The audience too was drawn in right at the beginning: Figaro delivered his first ten bars of the opening duet, ‘Cinque … dieci’, by approaching the stage from the auditorium. In his hasty escape from the Count, Cherubino jumps out of the window: in opera houses we see him rush off the stage but here Cherubino (the highly accomplished Wallis Giunta) jumped three or four steps down from the stage for all to see.
Another integrating device between performers and listeners, probably more by necessity than by choice, was a man sitting at a table on the stage and evidently reading the score (and turning pages when the conductor did). Noise effects were created by this gentleman (whose name does not appear in the programme notes unless he was stage director William Edelston) and he also seemed to function (very discreetly) as the man in charge of props. He and his table were in evidence throughout the first half of the performance (during Acts I and II) but neither were on stage in the second half (Acts III and IV) after the interval.
The costumes were contemporary; I am not sure if they were actual costumes for this ‘concert performance’ or clothes chosen by the solo singers for their characters. The chorus, as well as the conductor and the orchestra, wore regular black concert attire. With one exception, costumes for the solo singers were wholly appropriate for their characters. However, I found Susanna’s dress stunning but very provocative, leaving one shoulder totally bare and emphasizing Susanna’s legs as well as the rest of her attractive attributes rather strongly. No wonder that the Count was keen to be intimate with such a flirty Susanna.
I was surprised that thirty or so latecomers were let into the auditorium and into their seats during Act I, Scene 3. This meant that Bartolo’s ‘La vendetta’ was accompanied by some disturbance, yet the excellent bass Jonathan Best should have had full attention by all.
In my days as a cellist in an opera house I was constantly astonished as well as annoyed by the comings and goings of certain sections of the orchestra. I could not understand why these players were not interested in those sections of the opera where they did not play, why they felt it was necessary for them to leave the orchestra pit. I kept thinking that they could have not behaved like this on a concert stage. It appears that my assessment was inaccurate.
This time, during Le nozze di Figaro, there were some entries and exits which surprised me. For instance, in the second half of the performance the trumpet players left the stage after Act III Scene 4, returned during my favourite section (‘Che soave zeffiretto’, Act III Scene 10), left again just before Act IV Scene 1 and finally returned during the Finale in Scene 14. All the while the conductor, Richard Egarr, most of the Academy of Ancient Music and the singers gave their full attention to Mozart’s great masterpiece. Particular praise is due to principal cellist Jonathan Rees who played literally non-stop during the whole performance, playing continuo as well as all orchestral sections while holding his cello between his knees in the baroque/classical tradition that is without the support of a cello spike.
All solo singers were of fine quality but Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro) stood out with his vocal and dramatic strength, nuanced delivery of the role and innate musicality. To my ears and eyes, the portrayal of Susanna by Ellie Laugharne lacked warmth yet the libretto and, in particular, Mozart’s music, indicates it. The 12-member Grange Festival Chorus seemed to me as twelve excellent solo singers moulded into a fine ensemble.
Conductor and fortepiano player, Richard Egarr is clearly fully professional in the best sense of the word; evidently passionately caring about every note, every shape, every nuance. For my taste, the ‘Che soave zeffiretto’ duet of the Countess and Susanna was slightly rushed. These ladies are meant to be writing a letter, which takes time.
Before the performance started, the Chief Executive of the Academy of Ancient Music made an appeal for funding. Judging by the performance which followed, they deserve it.