Pappano leads Covent Garden’s Le nozze di Figaro and it is a visceral reminder of Mozart’s genius

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor/fortepiano continuo). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, 9.1.2022. (CC)

Riccardo Fassi (Figaro) and Giulia Semenzato (Susanna) © Clive Barda

Director – Sir David McVicar
Designer – Tanya McCallin
Lighting designer – Paule Constable
Movement director – Leah Hausman

Figaro – Riccardo Fassi
Susanna – Giulia Semenzato
Count Almaviva – Germán E. Alcántara
Countess Almaviva – Federica Lombardi
Don Basilio – Gregory Bonfatti
Bartolo – Gianluca Buratto
Marcellina – Monica Bacelli
Cherubino – Hanna Hipp
Antonio- Jeremy White
Barbarina – Helen Withers
Don Curzio – Alasdair Elliott
First Bridesmaid – Kathryn Jenkin
Second Bridesmaid – Miranda Westcott

There has been a good crop of Le nozze di Figaro’s over the last six months or so in the UK: firstly, Opera Holland Park’s magical production (I reviewed the Young Artists’ Performance click here), then HGO’s effervescent staging in Highgate (click here).

Sir David McVicar’s Le nozze di Figaro © Clive Barda

Sir David McVicar’s production at Covent Garden is by now known to many and often celebrated. I covered the previous incarnation in 2019, with Sir Simon Keenlyside as the Count and Julia Kleiter as the Countess, conducted by Sir John Eliot Gardiner (review click here). McVicar sets the opera in 1830’s post-Revolution France. The combination of Tanya McCallin’s sets and Paule Constable’s lighting is the apogee of operatic expertise as the opera moves from the morning brightness of the first act through to the nocturnal shenanigans of Act IV. Costumes are finely managed and appropriate for the chosen period; although this time round, Don Basilio seemed to morph into something of a Charlie Chapin-tribute, at least from something of a distance.

But there was a big difference between casts. This time round, a whole bunch of demonstrably fine singers and actors, but no stand-out, crowd-drawing names. Indeed, this felt very much like a company performance of Figaro with all characters interacting with the fine-tuned timing and confidence familiarity brings. I am not privy to rehearsal times (and aware of at least one substitution), but the cumulative effect of this ensemble tactic is only to the advantage of Mozart’s masterpiece. Underpinning this was an orchestra absolutely alive with the vivacity and tragedy of Figaro, and Antonio Pappano proving himself to be a fine Mozartian (and a fine fortepianist in the recitatives, too). Most importantly, this sense of cast cohesion found its ideal counterpart in Pappano’s grasp of Mozart’s larger processes, with the trajectory of each act, and indeed the four acts in toto, tracked with the hand of a master. (Interesting to note that da capo arias often had a decorated A1 section, too, always naturally delivered.)

The Figaro on this occasion was bass Riccardo Fassi – his Mozart debut was as recently as 2014 as Masetto (Don Giovanni in Como). He most recently sang Figaro under Barenboim at the Staatsoper under den Linden in September/October last year and will reprise the role there in April. He has all the confidence for the role, and a fine voice. The connection between him and his Susanna, Giulia Semenzato in the opening scene was perfection itself, and led one slowly to realise thar Semenzato is one of the finest Susannas around. Semenzato’s core repertoire leans towards the Baroque and she sings Maddalena in Antonio Caldara’s magnificent oratorio Maddalena ai piedi di Christo in Paris in April that I might all I can to see. (Alpha’s recording of Caldara’s piece, with La Banquet Céleste under Damien Guillon, will persuade anyone of the piece’s greatness). Hearing the lightness and agility of Semenzato’s voice, this background hardly comes as a surprise; definitely a singer to seek out.

As the Count, Germán E. Alcántara replaced Davide Luciano. Alcántara – a former Jette Parker artist at Covent Garden – is certainly inside the role, he has been singing it at Klagenfurt recently. He also has great stage presence, as does his Countess, Federica Lombardi. Lombardi took a little moment to settle into ‘Porgi amor’, but once there brought great depth to her character, not least in the crackling interactions with Cherubino, here Hanna Hipp, who had previously impressed in this very role not too far away at the London Coliseum in March 2020 (review here). Beautifully androgynous, Hipp’s quicksilver reactions were a real joy, but most of all she brought a sense of real depth to the part.

One has to also acknowledge the huge comedic value of Monica Bacelli’s Marcellina – a real triumph of an assumption – and Gianluca Buratto’s strongly delivered Bartolo. The small role of Barbarina has brought some pleasant surprises in the past; Helen Withers was perhaps a touch less engaged than others I have heard but balancing this were the excellent two Bridesmaids of Kathryn Jenkin and Miranda Westcott. Jeremy White’s Antonio, the gardener of the Count’s estate, was another assumption that seemed to offer more depth than one might be accustomed to.

The Chorus of the Royal Opera House was on simply magnificent form – never less than excellent, this was choral singing of globe-beating standard. The whole performance was a visceral reminder of Mozart’s consummate genius, powered from the pit by the unstoppable Antonio Pappano.

Colin Clarke

Remembering Bernard Haitink (1929-2021) 

The Royal Opera dedicates Le nozze di Figaro to his memory

The Royal Opera will dedicate the current run of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro to former Royal Opera Music Director Bernard Haitink – celebrating all he accomplished during his tenure at the ROH. Music Director of the Royal Opera Sir Antonio Pappano, who is conducting the revival run of David McVicar’s production, paid a personal tribute before the performance on Tuesday 11 January 2022.

Music Director of The Royal Opera Antonio Pappano said: ‘Bernard was a towering musician whose warmth and total honesty in his music-making made his performances always ring true. Le nozze di Figaro was a favourite of his and we hope that this dedication honours the memory of this greatly missed figure in the world of opera. I, personally, shall be forever in his debt.’

The Dutch conductor, who was The Royal Opera’s Music Director from 1987-2002, made his Royal Opera debut in 1977 Season, conducting Don Giovanni and Lohengrin.  Other conducting highlights during his tenure included new productions of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro and Don Giovanni, Strauss’s Die Frau ohne Schatten, Borodin’s Prince Igor, Tchaikovsky’s The Queen of Spades, Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, and three Janáček operas that included the first Covent Garden performances of Kát’a Kabanová. Haitink also conducted revivals of Verdi’s Don Carlos and Britten’s Peter Grimes to great acclaim.

 At The Royal Opera, he was best known as a Wagner interpreter. During his tenure, he conducted two Ring cycles (directed by Götz Friedrich and Richard Jones), and brand-new productions of ParsifalDie Meistersinger von Nürnberg and Tristan und Isolde. Haitink’s final appearance as Music Director of The Royal Opera was in July 2002, when he conducted a gala of extracts from some of his favourite works – Le nozze di FigaroDon Carlo and Die Meistersinger.

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