Sunday 6 June 2021

A youthful cast brings a lively wit to Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in Opera Holland Park's reconfigured theatre

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Elizabeth Karani, Ross Ramgobin - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Elizabeth Karani, Ross Ramgobin - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)

Mozart Le nozze di Figaro; Julien Van Mellaerts, Nardus Williams, Elizabeth Karani, Ross Ramgobin, Samantha Price, dir: Oliver Platt, cond: George Jackson; opera Holland Park

Reviewed by Robert Hugill on 4 June 2021 Star rating: 4.0 (★★★★)
A witty post-modern Bridgerton-inspired production which is wonderfully engaging yet serious too

Opera Holland Park's 2021 season has opened, with fewer seats, a modified layout to the auditorium and changes to the stage, but still the same energy, imagination and support for young artists. The opening production was Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro which we caught on Friday 4 June 2021, directed by Oliver Platt and conducted by George Jackson [see my interview with him, discussing the production]. The designs were by takis, but in an imaginative piece of cost-saving the basic structure of the set was that designed by Cordelia Chisolm for Verdi's La traviata (which is next up in the season). Julien Van Mellaerts and Nardus Williams were the Count and Countess, with Ross Ramgobin and Elizabeth Karani as Figaro and Susanna, plus Samantha Price as Cherubino, Victoria Simmonds as Marcellina, James Cleverton as Bartolo, Daniel Norman as Basilo and Don Curzio, Claire Lees as Barbarina and Henry Grant Kerswell as Antonio, with the City of London Sinfonia in the pit.

The production will form the basis for the company's 2021 Young Artist performances later this month, but the way the scheme has become part of the company ethos can be seen in the fact that director Oliver Platt and four cast members participated in past OHP Young Artist productions, whilst conductor George Jackson was associate conductor on the 2018 production of Cosi fan tutte, and four more cast members are graduates of OHP's wonderful family opera, Will Todd's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

With a smaller audience, the company has taken advantage of the changes to experiment. The canopy is the same, but the audience members are seated in chairs around a thrust stage so that the orchestra is in a pit surrounded by a runway with a small forestage in front of the conductor, an interestingly creative approach to the inherent problems with the wide Holland Park stage and thus giving director Oliver Platt the opportunity to bring the production closer to the audience. The layout also provided more of a challenge to conductor George Jackson, who satisfied the traffic-policeman requirements deftly and with lively attention.

Takis' adaptation of Chisholm's set provided a decorative (and flexible) arcade stage right, with a circular curtained area stage left which was the Countess' boudoir, whilst the fore-stage was decorated with occasional pieces of furniture brought on by uniformed flunkeys. The costumes were notionally 18th century, but the fabrics and the colours and styles of the wigs were very much post-modern. In the use of patterned fabrics for the costumes there was more than a hint of artist Yinka Shonibare, whilst the general approach with knowing modern takes on the period look and feel rather suggested that Netflix's Bridgerton had been something of an inspiration. Some of the ideas were perhaps a little too self-consciously witty, but giving the chorus cheer-leader pom-poms and party balloons was fun, and in the opening scene having Figaro measuring plans and Susanna reading a brides magazine was both comic and a deft solution to the scene's logistical challenges. 

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Julien Van Mellaerts, Nardus Williams - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Julien Van Mellaerts, Nardus Williams - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)

However, I found choreographer Caitlin Frewell Walsh's rather self-conscious use of pop-choreography moves in the ensemble scenes rather annoying. This is a trope which soon gets wearing, and I certainly could do without Cherubino delivering 'Non so piu' with classic pop-song moves, luckily Samantha Price's performance rose above this.

This was a production which acknowledged that Mozart and Da Ponte were notionally writing a comic opera, many of the scenes were despatched with lively wit and an engaging speed, whilst the mechanics of the Act I and Act II finales were deftly done (after all, for all Mozart's glorious music, the finale to Act II is essentially a Whitehall farce and the mechanics are important). But there was a serious element too, these were characters with real emotions and as Mozart intended, the Countess and the Count were largely above the comic action.

Julien Van Mellaerts was an aristocratic but deliciously self-important Count, behaving with glorious abandon yet never losing consciousness of his status. From his first appearance, deliberately flashing naked legs and boxer shorts (under his robe) at Susanna to his final capitulation to the Countess this was a fully rounded performance. We could laugh at the way his servants frustrated his plans, and decry his selfishness but Van Mellaerts also made him sympathetic, a little of the self-important yet powerless underdog who does not realise that he lacks power. A delightful performance, well judged in balancing comedy and anger, and finely sung.

Nardus Williams' Countess was the most serious person on stage, rising above everything with moving dignity. It wasn't so much her arias, both of which were stunningly sung, but the way that she continued this into all the dialogue so that there were so many moments of recitative or action where Williams conveyed so much with great economy. Yet this Countess wasn't just a maudlin wimp, and it was clear there was strength too, it wasn't impossible to think of Il barbiere di Sivigla's Rosina maturing into this woman.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Julien Van Mellaerts, Nardus Williams - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Julien Van Mellaerts, Nardus Williams - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)

Not surprisingly, Ross Ramgobin's Figaro wasn't as political as some contemporary interpretations of this character. Ramgobin's lively portrayal was securely in the hierarchy, even if he was scheming to foil his master's desires so that there was less of an edge to his Act I aria. He wasn't aiming to bring the Count down, just to adjust his behavious. Ramgobin's Figaro, wide-eyed yet not naive, had a lively way with the dialogue, which enlivened everything even when things took a serious turn and he was moving in Act IV when he believes that his wife is betraying him. Ramgobin and Karani vividly sketched in Figaro and Susanna's relationship and it was clear that she was his equal in this.

As Susanna, Elizabeth Karani was slightly less pertly vivacious as some and slightly more serious. She brought great comic potential to such scenes as the one where the Count tries to seduce her, and her managing of the Count was delightful, but you sensed the serious woman underneath ending of course with a beautifully judged account of 'Deh vieni' in Act IV. But it is in the recitatives and ensembles that we really get to know Susanna and Karani brought a sense of character into every moment.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - James Cleverton - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - James Cleverton - Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)

With both Figaro and Susanna, their relationship with their respective employers was well judged, and throughout we got a sense of the hierarchy (this even applied to the costumes where the servants dress was elaborate but with significantly different fabrics).

Samantha Price made a believable teenage Cherubino, lanky, lithe and restless with a certain physical awkwardness. There was, however, no awkwardness in the singing, with Price bringing a feeling of Cherubino's youthful impulsive nature into his arias. Neither 'Non so piu' nor 'Voi che sapete' were showpieces, they were gauchely breathless and wonderfully engaging. 

Victoria Simmonds made a rather sympathetic, surprisingly youthful Marcellina, less of an old-harridan and more of a schemer, supported by James Cleverton's distinguished and rather silver-fox-sexy Bartolo. Daniel Norman doubled Basilio and Don Curzio, making each highly colourful and neatly distinguishing between them. All three provided vivid support and made the dialogue zing. Claire Lees made Barbarina's Act IV aria a delight (and it is sometimes a moment when, for all the beauty, I want the drama to move on), whilst Henry Grant Kerswell drew her father Antonio with a delightfully broad brush.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Samantha Price, Claire Lees- Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)
Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro - Samantha Price, Claire Lees- Opera Holland Park 2021 [Photo Ali Wright)

There was a small chorus (eight singers) who provided engaging colour in the ensemble scenes and acted as supers for the scene changes.

In the pit, the City of London Sinfonia played Jonathan Lyness' reduced orchestration (just 10 strings, two oboes, single flute, clarinet, bassoon, French horn and timpani) with Stuart Wild on fortepiano. From the opening notes of the overture it was clear that George Jackson was relishing the lithness and incision that these forces brought to the music, the overture sped along but never ignoring the emotional import, and this characterised the whole performance. It was zippy and engaging, with vivid recitative, yet we never felt rushed and moments of calm were just that. 

The Holland Park theatre is perhaps not completely idea for Mozart's opera, but this new production provided a way of filling the theatre and doing justice to Mozart's music and drama. The entire performance was invigoratingly engaging, the cast rose above the challenges of the thrust-stage layout and managed to fill the theatre with music and vivacious drama. 

The blog is free, but I'd be delighted if you were to show your appreciation by buying me a coffee.

Elsewhere on this blog
  • Trying to make people unreasonable: I chat to composer Tim Benjamin about his opera The Fire of Olympus; or, On Sticking It To The Man  - interview
  • Nordic Reflections: The Carice Singers explore the choral songs of two contrasting 20th-century giants - concert review
  • High ambitions: Edinburgh International Festival's classical music programme for 2021  - interview
  • Innovative drama: Georg Benda's melodrama Medea in its rarely-performed revised version  - record review
  • What they did next: music from L'Album des Six alongside song cycles written after the six composers went their separate ways - record review
  • Handel the young Italian: Ensemble Marsyas in chamber music and duets from the composer's early years - concert review
  • Full of contrasts and dramatic cogency - Beginnings: New and Early Opera at the Guildhall School - opera review
  • Returning to Brahms: pianist Anna Tsybuleva won the Leeds International Piano Competition in 2015 with Brahms' Piano Concerto No. 2 and returned to the work for her debut concerto disc - interview
  • Six weeks of live music involving 2000 musicians with live audiences: the BBC Proms 2021 - feature
  • Exploring the Jistebnice kancionál: Barbora Kabátková chats about the Tiburtina Ensemble's exploration of this Czech manuscript - interview
  • Romanticism with bite: Daniele Gatti conducts Schumann's symphonies with Dresden Festival Orchestra at opening of the festival  - concert review
  • The spaces in between: José Luis Hurtado's music explores the relationships between complexity and freedom  - record review
  • Riveting drama: La Clemenza di Tito returns to Covent Garden after a near 20-year gap  - opera review
  • Home

No comments:

Post a Comment

Popular Posts this month