Monday 20 August 2007

Salzburg Festival: Le nozze di Figaro, 17 August 2007

Gerald Finley - Count Almaviva
Dorothea Röschmann - Countess Almaviva
Luca Pisaroni - Figaro
Jennifer O'Loughlin - Susanna
Martina Janková - Cherubino
Marie McLaughlin - Marcellina
Franz-Josef Selig - Bartolo
Patrick Henckens - Basilio
Oliver Ringelhahn - Don Curzio
Eva Liebau - Barbarina
Gabor Bretz - Antonio
Uli Kirsch - Cherubim

Claus Guth (director)

Concert Association of the Vienna State Opera Chorus
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra
Daniel Harding (conductor)

This was a Marriage of Figaro without comedy, set in a claustrophobic Ibsen-like house. It was a Figaro which, owing to wrenching from its context, lost most of its class conflict. It was a Figaro in which humanity did not so much take a back seat as simply vanished. It was a Figaro whose sets and costumes remained resolutely monochrome. It was a Figaro in which the dry recitatives were prolonged to two or three times their usual length. It was a Figaro in which the conductor and orchestra occasionally departed company from the singers. It was a Figaro of nightmares; indeed, it seemed both to depict and to be a nightmare.

And yet ... it worked. Had anyone described it to me, I should have recoiled in horror. Somehow, this anti-Figaro provided a truly compelling dramatic experience. And so, though it pains me once again to be paying more attention to the production than the music, it truly is justified here. Claus Guth presented one of the best examples of Regietheater I have ever seen. What sounds perverse, to say the least, was thought through to the end. It did not grate against Mozart's music, nor even for the most part Lorenzo Da Ponte's libretto; instead, it turned their usual - and 'correct - understanding on its head, and created anew. 'Please do not try this at home,' might be useful advice; but the most fizzingly champagne-like of operas was transformed into a harrowing, even sadistic drama, which came closer to the devastating hyper-realism of Così fan tutte.

As Guth turned the dramatic screw ever harder, we understood not only his Countess, an hysteric on her way to becoming Elektra, but also, perversely, Mozart's incarnation of forgiveness. As Figaro lost his focal place to Cherubino and his alter ego, the silent yet ever-active anti-cupid-Cherubim, we understood Mozart's Figaro all the better and also understood the alternatives his and Da Ponte's tightly-constructed drama could nevertheless be interpreted as having left hanging. A truly nasty 'Non piú andrai' chilled one to the bone, as Figaro and his master (in more than one sense?) played sado-masochistically with Cherubino. Susanna, who had certainly been conducting an affair with the Count, became a truly manipulative minx - but then in a sense she always had been. To shed her winsomeness was not all loss.

This would not have worked without excellent dramatic performances. Luca Pisaroni played his initially enfeebled but increasingly strengthened role to a tee. Physically and vocally, there was real danger in this Figaro. Gerald Finley was the very incarnation of dark masculinity as Almaviva. I found Dorothea Röschmann less impressive as the Countess; she appears to have acquired a considerable wobble in her voice. Yet she entered with gusto into this perversion of the role as almost universally understood. And special mention should go to the late substitute for a substitute, Jennifer O'Loughlin as Susanna. After what seemed like a few initial nerves, one would never know have known that she had not been performing the role all along. There was not a weak performance on stage. The greatest surprise, and this is truly to the musicians' credit, was that the moment of the Countess's quasi-divine forgiveness none the less won through. It is not that we had forgotten the rest of the performance, but a chink of Figaro as we knew it shone through, as it had to. The director was wise enough to permit this, and thus clinched his dramatic triumph.

The Vienna Philharmonic played throughout like angels - and yet also took the dramatic renversement in their stride. Aided by Daniel Harding's direction, the orchestra could sound brusque and threatening, though never ugly, when required. Harding's direction of the recitatives was at one with Guth's dramatic conception; this was more the recounting of an Ibsen drama, less the fleeting passage of the supreme opera buffa, than one would ever have imagined possible. I suspect that this may have been at least in part an inheritance from Nikolaus Harnoncourt's direction last year. If the truth be told, Harding's reading would have sounded jejune out of context, for instance on an audio recording; yet there was an encouraging synergy between pit and director, which should not go unremarked. Not all of his mood-swing variations of tempo worked. When unduly exaggerated, they sounded like a bad parody of Mengelberg. However, when they did work, they added to the bizarre success of this quite remarkable production.