Tuesday, 25 June 2019

Pacey, intimate & youthful: Mozart's comedy Le nozze di Figaro at the Grange Festival

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Wallis Giunta, Toby Girling, Ellie Laugharne - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Wallis Giunta, Toby Girling, Ellie Laugharne - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart Le nozze di Figaro; Simona Mihai, Toby Girling, Ellie Laugharne, Roberto Lorenzi, Wallis Giunta, Rowan Pierce, dir: Martin Lloyd-Evans, Academy of Ancient Music, cond: Richard Egarr; The Grange Festival
Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 5 February 2019 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A pacey and engaging period performance with youth to the fore

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Simone Mihai, Roberto Lorenzi - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
Simone Mihai, Roberto Lorenzi
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
We can easily forget, in our quest for Mozartian perfection, that many of the main characters in his comedy Le nozze di Figaro are young people. It works having the Countess sung by a distinguished older soprano, but we can perhaps lose sight of the fast that Rosina is quite young, relatively newly married.

For its production of Le nozze di Figaro (seen Sunday 23 June 2019), The Grange Festival assembled a striking group of young singers to embody the young characters in Mozart and Da Ponte's opera, with Toby Girling as the Count, Simona Mihai as the Countess, Ellie Laugharne as Susanna, Roberto Lorenzi as Figaro, Wallis Giunta as Cherubino and Rowan Pierce as Barbarina, with Louise Winter as Marcellina, Ben Johnson as Don Basilio, Jonathan Best as Dr. Bartolo and Richard Suart as Antonio. The production was directed by Martin Lloyd-Evans with designs by Tim Reed and lighting by Peter Mumford. Richard Egarr conducted the Academy of Ancient Music.

Whilst the genre of the master/servant comedy in 18th century opera was well establish (comoser Baldassare Galuppi and playwright Carlo Goldoni wrote a number of dramma giocoso in the 1740s which had servants running rings about masters), what Mozart and Da Ponte did was introduce a new humanity, so that these characters are living breathing beings with whom we empathise. But the opera is still a comedy, and Martin Lloyd-Evans period production respected this.

Designer Tim Reed provided a series of flexible spaces based on movable screens, with a variety of doors (respecting the hierarchies of the castle) and period costumes, and Lloyd-Evans created a fast paced and enjoyable comedy which never took the music for granted and allowed the cast to create some vivid characters. The fluid pacing was matched in the pit with Richard Egarr directing the period instruments of the Academy of Ancient Music, and providing imaginative forte piano accompaniments in the recitatives. This latter kept moving at a lively pace, something that the comedy needs and it perhaps helped that in Roberto Lorenzo's Figaro the cast had a native Italian speaker. Arias were allowed to blossom and mature, whilst never getting overly grand for this intimate theatrical space.


Ellie Laugharne and Roberto Lorenzi made a lively Susanna and Figaro, sparking off each other in their relationship. Yet both brought a vein of seriousness into their characters. Lorenzi's Figaro hinted at the greater politicisation of the character in Beaumarchais' play on which the opera is based, and clearly resented his master. Similarly Laugharne brought out interesting complexities in her Susanna, a rather more poised and less sparky portrayal than usual.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Louise Winter, Jonathan Best - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Louise Winter, Jonathan Best
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Lloyd-Evans' production brought out the hierarchy of the castle so that it was clear not only who was whom but their relative relationships; whilst Figaro and Susanna are servants they are a cut above the others (Ellie Laugharne's Susanna wore smart shoes and was going to be married in one of her mistress' cast-offs, whilst Rowan Pierce's Barbarina wore clogs!). At the top were the Count (Toby Girling) and the Countess (Simona Mihai). For much of the first half, set in their private rooms, we see them deshabille, and indication that behaviour here would be less formal. But Girling's Count was still the master, yet he vividly was sometimes unable to master himself. Demanding rather than bullying, this Count took things for granted, and was clearly the master. Girling's portrayal was vividly conveyed, full of lovely detail. Simona Mihai made a relatively light-voiced Countess, bringing a youth and fragility to the character, yet neither of her arias was under-powered, this was a fine and moving account of the role. A young woman rather at sea in the complexities of her marriage, and the dynamic of the Countess and Susanna's relationship was fascinating as Mihai and Laugharne made it clear that Susanna was the stronger character yet had to be subservient to the Countess.

Wallis Giunta was a delightful Cherubino, fast-paced and silly yet touching too with the sort of lack of awareness of consequences that is typical of youth. Rowan Pierce made a sparky Barbarina, quite a handful and full of character, with a poignant account of her aria.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Roberto Lorenzi, Rowan Pierce - The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
Roberto Lorenzi, Rowan Pierce
The Grange Festival 2019 (Photo Clive Barda)
The smaller characters were all strongly cast, providing a sequence of striking and comic characters. Louise Winter was a very self-satisfied Marcellina, clearly trying to hang on to an element of glamour from her youth, with Jonathan Best as a wry Dr Bartolo, and Richard Suart as a lively Antonio. Ben Johnson was luxury casting as a very slimy Don Basilio.

In the pit, Richard Egarr and the Academy of Ancient Music were equal partners in Mozart's music, providing sophisticated support and some lovely transparent and characterful textures. The whole had a suitably light and pacey feel, without ever seeming to skim over the surface.

This was an enjoyable and intimate account of Mozart's opera where the combination of young principals and period instruments brought out the youth and vitality of Mozart's comedy, the sense that everyone is to a certain extent at sea. This was very funny, but also poignant and moving.

The cast of Le nozze di Figaro is coming to London on 4 July 2019, when Richard Egarr conducts a concert performance of the opera at the Barbican with the Academy of Ancient Music and the cast of The Grange Festival's production (full details from the Academy of Ancient Music's website).

This third edition of the Grange Festival saw it really finding its feet, providing a nicely contrasted trio of opera productions (Verdi's Falstaff, Handel's Belshazzar and this Figaro) which reached a consistency of standard and showed the company exploring the types of opera which really suit this intimate theatre, plus of course other events such as Dance@The Grange and musical theatre. Next year there is Britten's A Midsummer Night's Dream, Rossini's La Cenerentola, Puccini's Manon Lescaut  and Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady!

Elsewhere on this blog
  • The Rake's Progress: Barbara Hannigan conducts a young cast at the Aldeburgh Festival (★★★★) - opera review
  • Cycle of history: Daniel Slater's imaginative staging of Handel's Belshazzar at Grange Festival (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Chineke! Chamber Ensemble in Saint-Saens, Wallen & Coleridge-Taylor at Wigmore Hall  - (★★★★★) concert review
  • Focus, concentration, engagement and enthusiasm: Gabrieli Roar in An English Coronation (★★★★★) - concert review 
  • Displaying their charms: Thomas Arne's The Judgement of Paris receives its first recording (★★★★)  - CD review
  • Gender bending Baroque: Lawrence Zazzo and Vivica Genaux swap genders and roles in this brilliant Baroque opera recital  (★★★★) - CD review
  • Garsington Opera: the UK stage debut of Offenbach's late opera comique Fantasio intrigues and engages - (★★★★½)  opera review
  • A sense of architecture: Philippe Herreweghe and Collegium Vocale Gent in Bach's Mass in B minor (★★★★½) - concert review
  • Aldeburgh Festival: Knussen Chamber Orchestra's concert debut in Knussen, Takemitsu, Stravinsky, Britten, Schubert (★★★★★) - concert review
  • An artist obscured by his own mythos: Ron Howard's documentary 'Pavarotti'  (★★★)   - Film review
  • Craftsmanship, colour & imagination: the symphonies of Thomas Wilson from RSNO & Rory MacDonald on Linn Records (★★★★★) - CD review 
  • Flair & imagination: UK premiere of Thomas Larcher's The Hunting Gun at the Aldeburgh Festival  (★★★★★) - opera review
  • Poise, elegance and drama: Carolyn Sampson & Joseph Middleton, Reason in Madness (★★★★★)  - CD review
  • The Grange Festival: Sheer enjoyment, Christopher Luscombe's delightful contemporary setting for Verdi's Falstaff  (★★★★½) - opera review
  • Home

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