Superb musicianship at odds with a dire production of Le nozze di Figaro at the Berlin Festtage

GermanyGermany Berlin Festtage 2022 [3] – Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Staatsopernchor Berlin (chorus master: Martin Wright), Staatskapelle Berlin / Daniel Barenboim (conductor). Staatsoper Unter den Linden, 9.4.2022 (MB)

Elsa Dreisig (Countess Almaviva) (c) Matthias Baus

Director – Vincent Huguet
Set designs – Aurélie Maestre
Costumes – Clémence Pernoud
Lighting – Irene Selka
Choreography – Thomas Wilhelm
Dramaturgy – Louis Geisler

Count Almaviva – Gyula Orendt
Countess Almaviva – Elsa Dreisig
Susanna – Regula Mühlemann
Figaro – Peter Kellner
Cherubino – Marina Viotti
Marcellina – Waltraud Meier
Basilio – Stephan Rügamer
Don Curzio – Siegfried Jerusalem
Bartolo – Peter Rose
Antonio – David Oštrek
Barbarina – Liubov Medvedeva
Harpsichordist – Lorenzo Di Toro

Of the three Mozart-Da Ponte arias, The Marriage of Figaro used to seem relatively director-proof. Don Giovanni was the notorious directors’ graveyard, with Così fan tutte somewhere in between. Figaro is not the only one dramatically beholden to an ancien regime society of orders; Don Giovanni is too, though the element of mythology offers other possibilities. In Così, whilst there are important inflections in that respect, they are less crucial. That makes transferral to another setting more difficult than many seem to think, at least unless they are simply going to jettison much of Mozart and Da Ponte altogether. (Yes, ‘at least’ is doing more work than it should there.) It can work — very well in some cases, ranging from Janet Suzman’s pre-revolutionary Cuba to Claus Guth’s exceptional reimagining after Strindberg. It needs thought, though, and application. Alas, chez Vincent Huguet, who to the apparent bewilderment of the entire operatic world has been awarded new productions of all three operas, lack of reflection and sheer laziness seem to have been the order of the day.

One can find germs, relatively well-concealed, of a few basic ideas in Huguet’s programme note. Estimably, he wanted to treat the works as a trilogy, albeit in eccentric order: Così, Figaro, Don Giovanni. We shall see, I suppose; I have been known to recant before, and shall do so happily if necessary. However, beyond name-checking of a few very predictable Francophone names — Foucault, Houellebecq — even that note has little to say; moreover, its connection to the vacuous goings on witnessed onstage remained obscure. The first act seemed to take place at a health club. That permitted an extraordinary display, in which praise could not be high enough for Peter Kellner (Figaro) and Regula Mühlemann (Susanna), of their opening duet being sung whilst doing press-ups. To what end, who knows? That idea, if one may call it that, was soon dropped, after Figaro dressed and the gym surface appeared to become a kitchen counter, on which he prepared some food. To what end, who knows? Thereafter, we moved from there completely, the Countess being revealed as a faded 1980s recording artist, painted by Andy Warhol. The outlandish tastelessness — yes, a quality we all summon to mind when considering the Countess — of her quarters, enhanced by a personal harpsichordist, suddenly onstage (to what end…?) and then by a giant stuffed leopard (or was that perhaps the Count’s? a sense of place became at best unclear…) might have had some implications, I suppose. One might simply have said this was akin to the Trumps, and celebrated a Peter Sellars Trump Tower reunion. Needless to say, no one did, and we moved on to the next sequence of non sequiturs.

It is not worth cataloguing them all, even if I could remember them, but the weird appearance of people with animal heads in the fourth act, two of them taking Figaro’s shirt off, may have had some significance. It probably did not, though, other than giving those who wished an opportunity to see a shirtless Figaro. At the very close, the Count and Countess continued to fight — not necessarily a bad idea — and, out of nowhere, Figaro ran towards his adversary and hit him before Cherubino ran off with the Countess. Thomas Wilhelm’s choreography seemed limited to a brief fitness display from a few unidentified people at the opening and the usual — in this tired ‘dramatic’ world — generic disco dancing at the end of Act III. Immediately prior to that, Huguet’s ‘response’ to Mozart’s exquisitely crafted ballet music was to have the Count and Countess sit on a sofa, the former tickle the latter with a large flower at tedious, apparently amusing, length, and then leap on top of her. It takes all sorts, I suppose, but sometimes I wish it would not. Perhaps we should have been better off if, according to Joseph II’s initial edict, it had been struck out after all; Mozart certainly would have been.

What made this waste of everyone’s time so heartbreaking was the thoroughgoing excellence of the musical performances. For them, and them alone, it is worth anyone’s time and money to attend, though I cannot have been the only person desperately wishing this had been a concert performance — or dare I say it, a ‘traditional’ staging set when and where it ‘should’ have been. Daniel Barenboim has been conducting this work since the mid-1970s and shows no signs of tiring; rather, the wisdom of experience, of Mozart as composer and dramatist, and of so many others, informs every bar, whilst weighing feather-light. To hear Barenboim conduct Figaro is an experience of stature similar to hearing Colin Davis do so, though their paths are of course distinct. Not even the Vienna Philharmonic would sound indubitably superior to the Staatskapelle Berlin here; they and Barenboim know what to expect from one another and can therefore play with expectations in the moment (an unfortunate bassoon disappearance in the Overture notwithstanding). Golden strings, heavenly woodwind, the entire ensemble up (down?) to and including first-rate timpani: all responded to each other, as if a large chamber ensemble, as well as to Barenboim’s vision.

In recitativo accompagnato, the strings ‘spoke’ with a vividness such as is called for in Gluck, or even Wagner, though of course a language that is subtly — or greatly — different. Those moments had me wish Barenboim would expand the circle of his Mozart’s operas to include Idomeneo; but that does not, sadly, seem to be on the cards, a postponed new production allotted instead to Simon Rattle. What strikes still more uncommonly in Barenboim’s case, though, is his strategic long-term thinking and hearing. As if this were a giant symphony, he knows the work’s structure and how to communicate it as form in ‘real time’. Conducting from memory liberates, so it seems. This, after all, is a conductor who leads Tristan und Isolde without a score. In other circumstances, I would lament the ‘traditional’ fourth-act cuts, but it was probably the right decision on Planet Huguet.

What a cast, too. Gyula Orendt’s Count Almaviva was dark, threatening, and seductive of tone. Leaving aside Huguet’s trashy vulgarity, Elsa Dreisig’s poised and benevolent Countess was straightforwardly one of the finest I have heard. Her collaboration with Barenboim and the orchestra in ‘Porgi amor’, voice and instruments responding to each other’s shifts in colour offered a masterclass in outstanding Mozart performance. One would never have known Kellner, keenly matched by Mühlemann, was a last minute substitute for Riccardo Fassi; indeed, one might have thought the performance built around him. His was, by any standards, an heroic undertaking, again gloriously seductive and as agile as he showed himself in the opening fitness class. Marina Viotti’s Cherubino was finely, instrumentally coloured, though done no favours by Huguet’s confused and confusing direction of her scenes. (One had to know, really.) Waltraud Meier, yes Waltraud Meier, showed she can still act — and how — as Marcellina, also clearly relishing verbal meaning and implications in her recitatives. Siegfried Jerusalem (!) had little to do as Don Curzio, but did it with uncanny excellence. Peter Rose at times threatened to steal the show as an uncommonly distinguished Bartolo. Everything was there, then, not least a fine sense of company, save for an intelligent or even vaguely coherent staging.

Mark Berry

1 thought on “Superb musicianship at odds with a dire production of <i>Le nozze di Figaro</i> at the Berlin Festtage”

  1. I have just watched most of this production, recorded, on the Mezzo channel, in France, on November 2, 2022. I find this critic’s music appreciation just; but what stuffy pomposity with regard to the staging! It is hilarious and highly enjoyable. What a pity Mr Berry seems to lack humour.


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