Friday 1 March 2013

Le Nozze di Figaro at Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Hadleigh Adams Figaro & Anna Starushkevych Cherubino Marriage of Figaro c.Clive Barda
Hadleigh Adama & Anna Starushkevych
Marriage of Figaro c.Clive Barda
An opera like Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro needs experienced singers who can combine vocal technique with life-experience to create the complex roles in the piece. But young singers need to get experience of the opera somewhere, and inevitably the opera will be one which features strongly in the working lives many of the young singers currently studying at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama (GSMD) as soon as they leave college. So GSMD's new production can be viewed as a training exercise and as a way of seeing young singers rising to the challenge of the complexities of Mozart's mature operatic roles. We attended the opening night of Martin Lloyd-Evan's production on 28 February, conducted by GSMD's Head of Opera Studies, Dominic Wheeler.

Samantha Crawford Countess & Lucy Hall Susanna Marraige of Figaro c.Clive Barda
Samantha Crawford & Lucy Hall
Marraige of Figaro c.Clive Barda
Things got off to a rather nervous start. The orchestra scurried away at Dominic Wheeler's quite brisk tempo in the overture and took a considerable time to settle. Then during the first scene, communication between pit and stage was less than ideal, though the problem was quickly resolved. I did wonder whether Bridget Kimak's set was causing some problems, especially as two or three of the cast seemed to initially be having problems relating to the orchestra's pitch, or it simply might have been nerves as again things settled down.

Kimak had provided a room within a room, so that all the action took place in a room-sized white structure perched in the middle of the stage area and raised above the stage floor. This doubled, quite flexibly as a truck bringing illegal immigrants into the USA (more on this later), rooms in the Almviva's grand house and an outdoor terrace for the wedding.  It might have been designed to help project the voices, but because of the placement it kept the singers further upstage than was ideal and being raised, prevent them from coming down to the foot-lights. Previous productions at GSMD have often gone to some care to enable singers to be brought well forward, so this seemed to be a deliberate challenge. A challenge to which, by and large, the young cast rose to admirably.

The production was set in modern day USA, with Almaviva as a senator who employs illegal immigrants as his staff. We see them arriving 2 years earlier during the overture and in act one, when Almaviva talks about paying Susanna handsomely, he shows her passport which he is holding. As a way of explaining the hold that Almaviva has over his household, it was a neat trick and just about removed the problems of updating the text.

There were still moments when you had to suspend disbelief, but by and large Lloyd-Evans, Kimak and the cast did a fine job of re-creating Mozart and Da Ponte's drama for the present without losing too much, though inevitably the various attitudes to sexual matters displayed in the opera do not chime that well with modern day mores. 

The most complete performances came from Hadleigh Adams and Lucy Hall as Figaro and Susanna. Though Adams displayed fine comic timing, his performance was quite sober and serious. His singing was superbly accomplished, just lacking something of a smile. Perhaps this was part of the production style, after all without the ability to come down to the footlights there was never any feeling of this Figaro confiding in the audience. But Adams created a fine, fully rounded character, equal to both the comedy and the more serious elements particularly in act four.

Adams developed a good rapport with Lucy Hall's Susanna. Hall was a complete delight. Again it was quite a sober, serious performance not so much pert as a little spitfire, you certainly guessed that she would be fully equal to Figaro in the relationship. Both she and Adams had a strong feel for the use of space and the way of using the stage even when not singing. Both are singers to look out for.

Benjamin Appl's Count was not quite as fully formed, but perhaps he had the trickier task as the Count is rather more of a mature role. Appl has a wonderfully expressive baritone voice and I look forward to hearing it in the more youthful role of Owen Wingrave at GSMD later this year. His Count was tall, slim and attractive with a wonderfully plausible manner when it came to dealing with the ladies, he also had the ability to turn on a pin with his emotions which is just right for this character. He was very seductive and in many ways quite brilliant. In the opening two acts, he just lacked that element of steel underneath which conveys quite why people always obey him. Also, in the ensembles in particular his stage manner became alarmingly camp, which is not a good look for Count Almaviva. All this was remedied in his act three solo which was quite brilliant and superbly hard edged. Again, a singer to watch out for.

Samantha Crawford made a tall, blonde and glamorous Countess, just what the production was looking for as a US senator's wife. She was touching, with just the right element of steel and interacted brilliantly with the others. But I was slightly worried about her performances of the arias. Touching and moving, yes, but not with the feeling for line which I would have preferred. Though she has sung Donna Elvira, I suspect that her fach will move away from Mozart as her voice develops. But this was an entirely believable and creditable performance.

Anna Staruchkevych was simply brilliant at portraying Cherubino as a young man, this was one of the most believable Cherubinos that I have seen in a long time. She looked and acted like a young man, was superbly impulsive and simply hilarious when dressing up as a girl. Perhaps her voice lacked a little of the bloom and warmth that would be ideal in this character.

Roisin Walsh was a rather personable, but still predatory Marcellina and she made the most of her opportunities, turning in a fine performance the often cut act four act aria. James Platt was a strong Doctor Bartolo and his act one aria was one of the most confident and stylish pieces of singing in the evening.

Adam Smith's voice has an interesting colour and edge to it, which suggests the worlds of Janacek rather than Mozart. He made a rather oily Basilio, and gave a creditable performance of his act four aria. This is not a good piece to perform in situ, because by the time we come to it the audience is keen to get on with the garden scene and Basilio's aria simply holds up the action. Smith did his best and certainly managed to hold our attention. 

Piran Legg was a wonderfully curmudgeonly Antonio, showing he has the knack of character and comedy. Joshua Owen Mills did what he could with the small role of Don Curzio. Lauren Zolezzi demonstrated that Barbarina is a role in which to develop talents which will flower in the bigger roles in the opera. Alison LAnger and Bethan Langford were the bridesmaids.

All the singers coordinated brilliantly in the comic set pieces, so that each worked perfectly. Lloyd-Evans has certainly inculcated into his team feeling for comedy, timing and an ability to work as a team. 

The chorus have a relatively small part to play but did so with a will, including the young man who appeared to be genuinely on crutches.

Once past the overture the orchestra settled down somewhat. The performance lacked the complete sophistication of some of the performances that I have heard here. But Le Nozze di Figaro is a long score and was given here in a long version, so they had their work cut out and acquitted themselves honourably.

The production did not quite get over the fact that part of the way through act four, you realised that you had been sitting in the theatre for a very  long time and that you were very, very keen for the final garden scene to take place. This, of course, did not disappoint and Crawford's Countess forgave Appl's Count in a most ravishing manner.

This was not, perhaps, quite one of the vintage performances that GSMD is capable of, but putting on one of the Mozart-Da Ponte operas with students is quite a stretch and what was impressive was quite how far the young performers did manage to stretch.

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