Monday, 7 July 2008

Review of The Marriage of Figaro.

It is some considerable time since I have seen a production of Le Nozze di Figaro. It was the conducting of Sir Charles Mackerras, more than anything else, which attracted me to the current run of performances at Covent Garden. Add to this the generally positive reviews for David McVicar's production and a cast which included 3 native Italian speakers, which is always a blessing in Mozart's Italian operas.

Tanya McCallin's designs are realistic, setting the opera firmly in the early 19th century. The production shows the advantage of originating productions at the Royal Opera House, the set takes advantage of the theatre's facilities and the huge, realistic walls of Count Almaviva's palace move around to re-configure themselves for each scene.

The show starts as soon as the overture begins, as we see a large hall with scurrying servants busy preparing for the day. McVicar uses a group of actors to play servants who are ubiquitous; the production is realistic in the way the Count and Countess are rarely alone, surrounded as they are by a flurry of servants.

In the orchestra things are equally dramatic. Unlike some other elder statesman conductors, Mackerras does not seem to have relaxed into slower tempos and lusher textures. In the orchestra, the brass and french horns had replaced their usual instruments with narrow bore, valve-less instruments - something which Mackerras has done with other modern instruments orchestras. Woodwind and string tone was correspondingly lithe and Mackerras's speeds were pleasantly brisk without feeling rushed.

Figaro (Ildebrando D'Arcengelo) and Susanna's (Aleksandra Kurzak) room is a rather distressed back-room in the palace and McCallin's inventive set also displays the adjacent corridor, which enables the servants to eavesdrop and gossip, and Marcellina (Ann Murray) and Bartolo (Robert Lloyd) to have their meeting in the corridor outside the room. McVicar's direction is constantly thoughtful, displaying his usual deftness with logistics so that the complex comings and goings work in a natural and logical manner.

The scene change from Act 1 to Act 2 took place seamlessly with no break in the music, which was a big bonus. The Countess's (Barbara Frittoli) room is in direct contrast to that of the previous scene, which indicates the relative difference between servant and master - something which is important in this opera and which some productions rather blur. Throughout the opera McVicar makes you constantly aware of this difference; no matter how friendly Figaro and Susanna may be with the Count and Countess they are most definitely still servants.

Act 3 opens on a large room leading to an outdoor terrace. The Count (Peter Mattei) is very much a modern man and is experimenting with the latest scientific equipment. The presence of the terrace gives scope for all sorts of eavesdropping.

But when Act 3 gives way to Act 4, all this realism starts to evaporate. The rear backdrop becomes the outside of the house, with trees in front. But the cast, in slow motion, re-arrange the furniture so that it is all topsy turvy and in this strange surreal world the garden scene takes place. Once you are used to it, this works after a fashion, but I am not really sure what McVicar is trying to tell us. Perhaps that the confusions are of the mind and not real, or perhaps he simply ran out of money.

As for the performances which articulated this staging, they probably can hardly be bettered. Peter Mattei's Count was distinguished, finely sung, mixing charm with anger and a fine sense of line. The only thing he lacked was the ability to be angry and sexy at the same time, showing the appeal beneath the hard exterior - something that Dieskau could do just with his voice. Barbara Frittoli's Countess was young and charming. For her two big arias, Dove Sono and Porgi D'Amor Frittoli displayed rather more vibrato than I would have liked, but she combined this with a good sense of line so that you never lost sight of the shape of Mozart's music. Both Frittoli and Mattei had the great virtue that they sounded aristocratic whilst retaining their humanity.

As their servants, D'Arcangelo and Kurzak made an equally fine, sparky pair. Neither was as manic as in some performances, both were thoughtful with elements of sparkiness. Perhaps Kurzak lacked a little of the mercurial fire which some singers have brought to the part, but her Susanna was well crafted and had the necessary fire and strength when needed. The two singers played off each other so that they created a realistic relationship.

I have rarely seen a more convincing Cherubino than that of Anna Bonitatibus. She sang beautifully, but many mezzos have done that; she also looked and behaved like the teenage boy that Cherubino is. For large stretches of time you lost sight of the fact that Bonitatibus was a woman, too often in this role you are permanently conscious of the singer's sex. Bonitatibus is small of stature so she made a lively, sparky, impulsive Cherubino, one completely dominated by his topsy-turvy hormones.

The remaining characters were equally well drawn and performed. Ann Murray made Marcellina less the caricatured harridan and was casting of such quality that you regretted the omission of her aria. Equally Robert Lloyd was luxury casting as Bartolo. Robin Leggate made a fine, effect Don Basilio and his aria was regretted also. And Donald Maxwell had a great time as the drunken Antonio. Jette Parker Young Artist Kishani Jayasinghe made a sweet Barbarina, giving a lovely account of her aria.

Mackerras opted to have the continuo performed by harpsichord and cello, with the latter often playing the larger role. The recitative bowled along at a good rate, always comprehensible and flexible, it never felt rushed but seemed a realistic conversational pace. Similarly his fast-ish speeds in the arias made sense in the context of the whole production and this far into the run the singers seem to have become comfortable with Mackerras's speeds.

The production has choreographer Leah Hausman credited, presumably for the complex movement patterns of the servants, and it was Hausman who acted as revival director.

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