Saturday 12 July 2008

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera, 12 July 2008

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Figaro - Ildebrando d'Arcangelo
Susanna - Aleksandra Kurzak
Bartolo - Robert Lloyd
Marcellina - Ann Murray
Cherubino - Sophie Koch
Count Almaviva - Peter Mattei
Don Basilio - Robin Leggate
Countess Almaviva - Barbara Frittoli
Antonio - Donald Maxwell
Don Curzio - Harry Nicoll
Barbarina - Kishani Jayasinghe

David McVicar (director)
Leah Hausman (revival director and movement director)
Tanya McCallin (designs)
Paule Constable (lighting)

Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna)
Orchestra of the Royal Opera House
Sir Charles Mackerras (conductor)

David McVicar's production of Figaro is for some reason updated to the France of the July Monarchy. This does no particular harm but I cannot see that any light is shed upon the work by such an arbitrary transposition. One could doubtless have made something of the parallels and differences between the ancien régime and so-called 'Restoration Europe'; in fact, much was anything but restored, and the questions of 1789 remained to be answered. Yet there appeared to be little attempt to run with the idea of remembering everything and having learned nothing. Instead, we had beautiful sets and a great deal of McVicar's trademark 'stage business', looking rather more tired than it had during the first revival. There is, I admit, a case for giving an impression of the house at work, yet I found the incessant running and fooling around of servant 'extras' became tiresome and distracting. 'Became' is not quite the right word, however, since the overture fared worst of all. Many directors nowadays seem quite incapable of allowing the music to speak for itself, in the overture, let alone elsewhere. Here there was so much choreographed activity - choreographed very well on its own terms - that one sometimes strained to hear the music for the heaviness of the footsteps on stage. This would have mattered more in a better musical account of the overture, but even so, it was inconsiderate. Mozart and da Ponte's comedy threatened to become an operatic version of Upstairs, Downstairs: or Rossini, for short. Some of the truest genius in Figaro lies in its darker undercurrents, which passed for little or nothing here. Comedy need not equate to thigh-slapping. By all means re-imagine the work, as Claus Guth did so magnificently for Salzburg, but truly re-imagine it, instead of playing to the gallery. (Speaking of the gallery, I could have swung for the woman a row behind me, who laughed uproariously throughout, irrespective of what was going on musically or scenically. And why, o why, did most of the theatre find the Count's beseeching his wife for forgiveness hilarious? This did not even have any warrant on stage, let alone in the work itself.)

The esteem enjoyed by Sir Charles Mackerras in Mozart's music continues to baffle me. Janáček undoubtedly, Strauss often, Handel in former times, but his interpretations of Mozart have never seemed to me more than passable. (One hears far worse, of course, but that is another matter.) Mozart needs to breathe, as Sir Colin Davis understood in his truly magical account last time around. Is it, moreover, so very difficult to appreciate that an orchestra of a size that may have been adequate to a small eighteenth-century theatre will sound lost in a space the size of the Royal Opera House? The overture set the scene in more than one sense for the first act; it was mercilessly hard-driven. Malnourished strings were rarely allowed to sing as they might have done, whilst natural brass and hard sticks on kettledrums - shall we ever rid ourselves of this ridiculous fad? - sounded merely coarse. There were a couple of bizarre harpsichord incursions into the overture, although the handling of the continuo was generally excellent. Subsequent acts fared somewhat better, although the great finale to the second act again often sounded rushed in the extreme. One has no chance of hearing the words at such speed during ensembles, let alone of reflecting upon them, despite the valiant attempts of the cast. The moment when Susanna emerged from the Countess's closet, surely a point to stand back in knowing amazement, would have been more fitting to a horse cantering around a paddock. At least the music relaxed for the Countess's arias and her moment of forgiveness. And Mackerras's ornamentation of the vocal lines - I assume it was his, for such appears to be his usual practice - was tasteful and often interesting.

It would be difficult to fault the cast, and I shall not try. Ildebrando d'Arcangelo's attention to all aspects of the stage and to the staging was truly remarkable. His is a darker-toned Figaro than one often hears - which, to my mind, is all to the better. His devilish attraction is flawlessly exhibited both on stage and, most important, in the music. Aleksandra Kurzak was a lively, musical Susanna and Sophie Koch a youthfully ardent Cherubino. (It is just a pity that she was so often forced to adopt such breakneck tempi.) We had a fine noble couple in Peter Mattei and Barbara Frittoli. The former again has quite a dark voice for the role but he nevertheless managed to engage our sympathy as well as our enmity. Frittoli grew into her role, I thought. She was never less than very good, but one did not initially feel for her and with her in the way one often can. Her moment of (divine) forgiveness was, however, moving as only this moment can be. The smaller roles were all very keenly observed, in spite of the excision of arias for Basilio and Marcellina. Special mention should go to Jette Parker Young Artist, Kishani Jayasinghe: a winning Barbarina. This strong cast often redeemed the other shortcomings of this Figaro, but it should not have had to do so.