Saturday, 19 July 2014

Munich Opera Festival (1) - Le nozze di Figaro, Bavarian State Opera, 17 July 2014

Nationaltheater, Munich

Count Almaviva – Gerald Finley
The Countess – Véronique Gens
Cherubino – Kate Lindsey
Figaro – Erwin Schrott
Susanna – Hanna-Elisabeth Müller
Bartolo – Umberto Chiummo
Marcellina – Heike Grötzinger
Basilio – Ulrich Reß
Don Curzio – Kevin Conners
Antonio – Peter Lobert
Barbarina – Elsa Benoit
Two Girls – Josephine Renelt, Rachael Wilson

Dieter Dorn (director)
Jürgen Rose (designs)
Max Keller (lighting)
Hans-Joachim Rückhäberle (dramaturgy)

Chorus of the Bavarian State Opera (chorus master: Stellario Fagone)
Bavarian State Orchestra
Dan Ettinger (conductor)
Image: Wilfried Hösl

One is unlikely to come across a cast of Figaro principals much better than this today, and the virtues of this performance indeed proved to be primarily vocal. Gerald Finley offered a handsomely-sung, dramatically alert portrayal of the Count, beautifully complemented by Véronique Gens, whose apparent indisposition was only occasionally evident. Erwin Schrott’s Figaro suffered from surprising occlusion of tone during the first act, but thereafter was very much on form, Schrott’s theatricality and musicality working very much in tandem. His Susanna, Hanna-Elisabeth Müller was perky and vivacious in both respects too. Kate Lindsey had a slightly uneasy start as Cherubino, but more than made up for it with a perfectly-sung ‘Voi che sapete’. One could believe in her/him throughout too, not least when she adopted the guise of awkward cross-dressing. Amongst the rest of the cast, Ulrich Reß’s Basilio stood out, although he alas – following directorial orders? – adopted the current tendency towards caricature in the role, if less so than sometimes one endures. Elsa Benoit’s Barbarina showed great promise, indeed great achievement; I suspect that we shall soon be hearing more from her.

If only the cast had been better supported, let alone led, by Dan Ettinger. The orchestra sounded as though it would have been happier playing without a conductor; indeed, though sometimes a little on the heavy side, the orchestral playing as such was distinguished throughout. Alas, Ettinger seemed never able to settle on the ‘right’ tempo: not that there is only one, but at the time, it should feel as though that were the case. After an Overture and good part of the first act that were driven as if they were Rossini, with little or no space to breathe, other numbers relaxed too much and felt unduly drawn out. Worse still were the occasions when tempi changed arbitrarily – this was no Furtwängler! – during a number, ‘Dove sono’ an especially unfortunate example, Gens seemingly very much at odds, and rightly so, with the conductor. It was far from the only occasion upon which coordination between stage and pit went quite awry. My habitual lament at the loss of Marcellina’s and Basilio’s fourth-act arias was exchanged for relative relief: a sad state of affairs.

Dieter Dorn’s production is an odd affair, of which I struggled to make much sense. I had the impression – which may of course be wide of the mark – that we saw a director of a fundamentally conservative disposition who nevertheless felt obliged to try something ‘new’, resulting in a compromise that lacked coherence. I assume that the contrast between period costume and scenic abstraction was deliberate, perhaps attempting to make some point about stylisation, about contemporary reception of an over-familiar eighteenth-century work, etc., but am not entirely sure quite what that point was. The fourth act’s ‘business’ with white sheets in place of ‘proper’ scenery has unfortunate echoes of a school play, or perhaps better, a school ‘movement’ session. The cast seemed to flounder on stage, and I could not really blame them. There was an equally unfortunate, if typical, tendency, if less extreme than can sometimes be the case, to confuse this most sophisticated of comedies with mere farce. (Does not Mozart’s score tell us everything we need to know in that respect – and indeed in every other?) For the most part, the cast rose above such limitations, but limitations they certainly were.

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