Sunday, 9 June 2013

Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne Festival Opera, 8 June 2013

Glyndebourne Opera House

Figaro – Adam Plachetka
Susanna – Laura Tatulescu
Bartolo – Luciano Di Pasquale
Marcellina – Anne Mason
Cherubino – Lydia Teuscher
Don Basilio – Timothy Robinson
Countess Almaviva – Amanda Majeski
Count Almaviva – Joshua Hopkins
Antonio – Nicholas Folwell
Don Curzio – Alasdair Elliott
Barbarina – Sara Lian Owen
First Bridesmaid – Charlotte Beament
Second Bridesmaid – Annie Fredericksson

Michael Grandage (director)
Ian Rutherford (revival director)
Paule Constable (lighting)
Ben Wright (movement)

Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines)
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Jérémie Rhorer (conductor)

What a pity! On a glorious – well, by recent English standards – summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached. Still, they had clearly made the most of their interval picnicking, about which a little more anon. To see The Marriage of Figaro, the first opera staged at Glyndebourne, and the first staged at the new house too (preserved on a wonderful DVD, with Bernard Haitink as conductor) ought to have been the icing on the cake. Of course, it ought to have been the other way round, Mozart and Da Ponte coming first, but Michael Grandage and his revival director, Ian Rutherford had no intention of permitting that to happen. (As shorthand, I shall refer to Grandage, but it may be that Rutherford modified an initial conception to a considerable degree. The curious may consult a DVD from last year now available; I do not think I can bear to see it.)

For no apparent reason, the action is shunted into the 1970s, the decade, which, everyone seems to agree, taste forgot, whatever its virtues may have been. It seems a peculiar substitute for the eighteenth-century. No attempt seems to have been made either coherently to re-imagine the action – the intricate comedy based upon a society of orders, let alone the droit de seigneur is, as much as possible, simply ignored – or boldly to present something new. For the former, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle remains a magical DVD bet, aided by Karl Böhm, the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast, headed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa, Hermann Prey, and Mirella Freni, for which the phrase ‘to die for’ might have been made. (The aforementioned Glyndebourne production, directed by Stephen Medcalf, has a fair share of magic too.) Claus Guth’s superlative Strindbergian retelling from Salzburg heads the other camp; it should not work, but it really, really does.

Chez Grandage, at best what we have is a pointless updating, with nothing to say either about Figaro or about the 1970s. Much of the time, however, the situation is far worse; this most perfect of operas – give or take a Così – is treated as fodder for a variety of slapstick at which even the lowest common denominator might cavil. With a few design hints of the original Spain – it seems no more specific than that – what we see resembles a particularly un-amusing episode of the little-lamented British sitcom, Duty Free. The Overture endures the arrival of the Count and Countess in a sports car – presumably, because the budget can. Hideous outfits, sometimes with a vague ‘Spanish’ air, sometimes not, come and go. No context is suggested for the coexistence in a villa-like location of alternatingly strange and uncharacterised people. Even an ill-behaved audience thought it beneath itself to laugh – perhaps the sitcom custom of ‘canned laughter’ should have been adopted – at Susanna reacting to Cherubino’s malodorous socks.  The nadir, however, was reached when, at the end of the third act, quite deaf to Mozart’s score, some of the most embarrassing disco dancing I have ever witnessed – and even if ‘embarrassing’ were the point, that does not excuse it – was foisted upon the work. As if that were not enough, some sections of the audience started clapping along, albeit with a disturbing lack of rhythm. We seemed to have moved from Duty Free to Hi-de-Hi! (For those innocent of the ‘heyday’ of the British sitcom, Youtube may well have clips; I should recommend spending the time with Ponnelle and Böhm instead.) It was well-nigh impossible to hear the orchestra for such loutish behaviour: doubtless encouraged by the staging, but nevertheless the responsibility of the perpetrators.

And, just to make things even worse, the surtitles alternated between the embarrassingly demotic (Susanna again, being compelled to comment approvingly on Cherubino’s ‘moves’); the absent (far too much of the recitative); and the often wildly inaccurate (why a ‘signature’ for the army officer’s seal?) Whoever is responsible needs to address the problem, since it is not an exception; the titles for Ariadne auf Naxos made almost as much a mess of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s exquisite text. It is a problem that can readily be corrected, and certainly ought to be.  

Musically, things were better, though far from what we all know Figaro can be, whether from great recorded performances or memories in the theatre. To be fair, the production did its best to overshadow the music, so there was little scope for outstanding assumptions of almost any role. Adam Plachetka seemed a little neutral as Figaro to start with, but warmed up; Laura Tatulescu, whom I admired in ENO’s Castor et Pollux, similarly as Susanna, in a lively performance. Much the same could be said of the Almavivas. Joshua Hopkins offering genuine rage without bluster in his third-act aria, and Amanda Majeski sang well enough, if not quite in style: either a little bland, or a little tremulous. Lydia Teuscher’s Cherubino was fine as far as it went, but was not helped by certain tempo choices and suffered somewhat from a lack of tonal richness; it was difficult to believe in her as a boy. I should not, however, be surprised if performances improved considerably during the run; they often do, and there was in any case nothing really to complain about here. In this context, it was perhaps unsurprising that the stock buffo characters came off best, Anne Mason’s Marcellina and Luciano Di Pasquale’s Bartolo particularly noteworthy.

Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra had its moments, but they were moments. There was little sense of Mozart’s tonal architecture, so crucial to delineating the drama; moreover there were a good few perverse choices of tempo, whether considered in themselves or in context. I do not think I have heard ‘Non più andrai’ taken either so lightly or so quickly; it is certainly not an experience I wish to repeat. Another problem, in some ways still more serious, was of general listlessness, the music swimming along somewhat aimlessly; it often seemed genuinely uncertain whether this were what Rhorer had insisted upon, or whether it were what he had fallen into. A related issue was that of far too many cases in which stage and pit fell apart. The odd instance might be ascribed to a singer, but not a persistent problem. When it was permitted to do so, the LPO played with spirit and with warmth, provided one could take the rasping of natural trumpets (though not horns). How one longed, though, for this fine orchestra, with so splendid a pedigree in Mozart, to be reunited with the likes of Haitink. One longed still more, of course, for a staging that began to do justice to the work.

This is a co-production with Houston and the Met. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how it goes down across the Atlantic.


Anonymous said...

I am so not looking forward to this at the Met. This seems to be following Gelb's practice of rewarding failure since Grandidge did a horrible Don Giovanni at the Met--the performance I saw was saved by Finely in the title role and Terfel "covering" as Leporello, both doing "their own thing." In your experience do these productions updated to a specific place and time ever work? Its like the director just thinks I "updated" this opera and that is it. No thought is given to the work itself and how the "concept" tells us something about the work or the characters or anything. It's just isn't this cute and I can get some cheap yucks. Not to mention no attempt is given to deal with the conflicts and inconsistances between the libretto and the update. I know you hate Verdi but the Met's 60s Vegas Rigoletto just made my head want to explode it was so stupid and poitnless. These updates just seem to be a refuge for directors who have no ideas or can't be bothered thinking about the piece.

David Allen said...

I didn't know this was coming to these shores, although I'm not surprised it was crass given what Grandage did to Don Giovanni here. I'm not sure why, but Mozart suffers terribly at the moment in New York: that Don, an old Figaro that has become slapstick, and soon this.

Wotans Other Eye said...

I respect Glydebourne immensely, especially their Mozart. However, I have put off seeing any Mozart in the UK for a few years. The reasons are reflected in your review. For whatever strange reason, Directors here have taken to stripping Mozart's operas of all of their social commentary, all of their beauty, all of their subtleties and turned them into "Carry On" movies and "Kiss Me Quick" postcards of various decades.

Why? I have no idea. These strange trends in opera production come and go as you are surely well aware.

Perhaps they feel that the Simon Cowell generation cannot process anything more. Perhaps they are right. I really don't know. I often find my self astounded at the sort of banalities that one overhears from an average opera audience in the UK - and elsewhere. No more so than those that visit Mozart, Verdi or Puccini (not that Wagner, Strauss or Berg come-away unscathed - assuming these people turn up by accident at any of their works). But I do know, I am growing very tired of the whole thing. There are times when I think I should stick to CD recordings and concert performances.

I am being to think, there is far more interesting and stimulating visual art to be found elsewhere than in the opera house

You must forgive my negativity. I think it has simply been a "long day" Or at least a long few years of opera productions

Mark Berry said...

I started wondering whether Grandage might be the new Francesca Zambello; I now fear he might actually be worse. It was heartening to sense a uniformly poor reception for the Met Don Giovanni. Having been to this Figaro and written it up - and off! - I then thought I should look at what else had been written about it. Depressingly, if predictably, many British daily newspaper writers were purring with praise. One, who can almost always be relied upon to spout ignorant, philistine rubbish - his review of The Minotaur was beyond belief - described Grandage's production as 'pure joy' and awarded the thing five stars. If there is any point at all in the rest of us writing on such matters, it would be to offer a little corrective to such arrant nonsense. Anyway, it is heartening to be reminded from such comments that at least some of us still care about Mozart.

Lucy said...

Oh dear. I cannot but share the alarm both at the production's vacuity and at what seems to be a trend at the Met to prefer mindless (or at least unimaginative... I found the Rigoletto far preferable to the Don) "updating" to productions with thoughtful vision. Part of the puzzle, to me, is the apparent refusal to engage with anything but the comedy in these Mozart works.