Switzerland Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Philharmonia Zurich / Christoph König (conductor). Zurich Opera, 7.10.2022. (MF)
Director – Jan Philipp Gloger
Set – Ben Baur
Choir – Ernst Raffelsberger
Lighting – Martin Gebhardt
Videography – Tieni Burkhalter
Dramaturgy – Claus Spahn
Il Conte di Almaviva – Markus Werba
La Contessa di Almaviva – Sine Bundgaard
Figaro – Morgan Pearse
Susanna – Sandra Hamaoui
Cherubino – Lea Desandre
Marcellina – Malin Hartelius
Bartolo – Yorck Felix Speer
Basilio – Spencer Lang
Don Curzio – Martin Zysset
Barbarina – Chelsea Zurflüh
Antonio – Ruben Drole
The cheating starts even before the first note is played. With the house lights still on, a code of conduct on sexual harassment is projected onto the black curtain, a code of conduct perhaps not dissimilar to the one the Zurich Opera recently put in place for itself. Ahead of the orchestra embarking on the overture, the Count and Basilio – acting as his sleazy PA/factotum – review the code, amending and tweaking it so as to suit the Count’s intentions for the rest of this ‘mad day’. In the process, they do not forget to add some gender-neutral spelling.
Director Jan Philipp Gloger convincingly translates the opera’s topics of relationships between different power levels and their appropriateness, as well as fluidity between the sexes and genders, into today’s spheres of the #metoo movement, not to mention hyperbolic political correctness and wokeness (cue Basilio’s yogic breathing exercises and messy bun hairstyle). This Zurich production is a modern day “Upstairs Downstairs” comedy. The directing convinces with precision, it is funny, rich in detail and racing as much as occasionally racy, leaving sufficient breathing room for the moments of introspection.
Over the course of the four acts, we are taken through the Count’s palatial home. The production starts in a slightly grubby backyard doubling as a room, a single bed al fresco in this case, which the Count has allocated to Figaro and Susanna. Cherubino’s first appearance in a red and white Where’s-Wally jumper marks the beginning of his whirlwind evolution. The character unfolds from a sheepish beanpole with Pinocchio-like puppet movements into a youngster clearly not afraid of taking the action in his own hands, and beyond. French mezzo soprano Lea Desandre brilliantly inhabits the role, beaming with desire and an appetite for life. Cherubino’s ‘Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio’, rendered with seductive radiance by Desandre, becomes the leitmotiv for the entire production.
The second act is set in a bleak basement laundry room. The Countess’ opening ‘Porgi, amor’ goes straight to the heart. Sine Bundgard brings to the stage a mix of depth and beautiful despair. Fortunately, she desists from her subsequent suicide attempt allowing us to witness the crossdressing of Cherubino with the help of Susanna, a marvelously lively and versatile Sandra Hamoui. Even if it is the women who steal the show in this production, it is of course as much about the men. The Count joins the scene as a blasé buffoon in a tightly fitting polo uniform complete with knee-high riding boots. As if to underline Susanna’s principal role in devising the plot’s main turns, the men get plenty of pushing and pulling around by the women. Figaro, while imagining playing the guitar for the Count’s dancing (‘se vuol ballare signor Contino’), passionately wields a leaf rake, a far cry from the pitchforks that made real revolutions.
For the third act the action moves up several floors to a high ceiling salon where the Count, reclining on an ottoman, drink and shot glass in hand, reflects on his fallibility. Atop the pile of coffee table art books sits a heavy volume on Magritte. The Countess treats us to another moment of heavy -hearted and transcendent beauty with her aria ‘Dove sono i bei momenti’, lamenting the loss of her happiness. The third act culminates in the wedding party and we are, for a moment, left wondering if the celebratory letter balloons which are hoisted do not, after all, spell “Just Marred” (they don’t, the “i” is there).
Before the final act opens Cherubino takes a go at tweaking the code of conduct, clearly following in the Count’s footsteps. We then find ourselves in a somewhat claustrophobic attic, the entire cast still visibly hung over. Each goes after the other, without actually knowing (wanting to know?) whom they are chasing – qui lo fan tutti. Even Bartolo and Basilio discover a mutual attraction. By turning off the lights with a determined punch at the main electricity switch, Susanna makes it clear that all the jolly loving and forgiving sung about in the final tutti is at best temporary.
The cast is universally superb, it melts into a true ensemble. Their enjoyment of bringing the story to life is palpable. We benefit from director Jan Philipp Gloger’s background as both an opera and theatre director. The men universally act and sing with heart and humour. The audience will happily remember a facetiously self-deprecating Markus Werba as the Count and Morgan Pearse as Figaro with an enthralling stage presence and richly resonating voice. Spencer Lang’s hipster Basilio is a comic delight.
Christian König directs a Philharmonia Zurich on excellent form. The orchestra, performing from an elevated pit, plays with chamber musical lightness and accuracy, doing full justice to this masterpiece. In some of the more tumultuous scenes one can already hear Rossini’s Barbiere beckoning from afar.