Tuesday 1 June 2010

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera, 31 May 2010

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden

Figaro – Erwin Schrott
Susanna – Eri Nakamura
Count Almaviva – Mariusz Kwiecien
Countess Almaviva – Annette Dasch
Cherubino – Jurgita Adamonytė
Bartolo – Robert Lloyd
Basilio – Peter Hoare
Don Curzio – Christopher Gillett
Marcellina – Marie McLaughlin
Barbarina – Amanda Forsythe
Antonio – Nicholas Folwell
Bridesmaids – Glenys Groves, Kate McCarney

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

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

Covent Garden’s present run of The Marriage of Figaro opened with an evening of true wonders, let down by some other aspects. Let me get the latter out of the way: first, a good or rather a bad part of the audience. How I weary of having to ask this, but is it impossible for people simply to behave in a fashion that does not detract from others’ experience? One almost grows inured to low- or even intermediate-level coughing, but the hayfever season was well marked by an epidemic of sneezing. Chatter, mobile telephones, banging, bracelet jangling, unwrapping of sweets: all and more were there. And if to applaud within acts infuriates, to do so before a number has even concluded is unforgivable. Lesser composers do not deserve this; Mozart certainly does not.

David McVicar’s production has its moments, but already looks a bit tired. The hyperactive army of servants continues to irritate, nowhere more so than during the overture, where Mozart should surely be left to speak for himself. I no more understand the updating to c.1830 than I did on previous encounters. One might make a case – though I suspect that it would be easier to do so in writing than on stage – for a production that looked back fifty years, engaged in a dialogue with the ancien regime, and considered the world of the Restoration in which the Bourbons remembered everything but had learned nothing. This, however, does not seem to do so; it merely moves everything on half a century and continues in relatively light vein. The feudalism of the Almaviva estate, especially the droit de seigneur, was exaggerated at the time of writing, quite deliberately so. If, as here, it seems to be central to the production, then it is difficult to make sense of a temporal relocation. This work is historical in a way that Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte are not; updating needs a point that is lacking here. The arrival of a dog on stage when the Count rushes back from hunting is a cheap trick, guaranteed to make the sentimental coo, but with as little dramatic point as the transformation of Don Basilio into a Danny La Rue de ses jours. (Camping it up does not go so far as that in Barrie Kosky’s dreadful Berlin production, but it remains unwarranted by words or music.) And the concentration on a mute serving girl at the end irritatingly reprises a McVicar trick of taking a minor or even invented character and, for reasons uncertain, thrusting him or her into the limelight. Naaman in Salome and Mohammed in Der Rosenkavalier are two further examples.

Sad to say, the female singers were mostly disappointing. Annette Dasch made for a bland Countess – which is surely not what this most wonderfully sophisticated of Mozart’s women should be. There was nothing especially wrong, other than excessive tremulousness in ‘Dove sono’, nor was there anything with which truly to empathise, let alone to adore. My thoughts wandered to the image and sound of Kiri Te Kanawa in the beautiful filmed production from Jean-Pierre Ponnelle, conducted exquisitely by Karl Böhm. Eri Nakamura seemed simply to have bitten off more than she could chew as Susanna. There was a transformation of sorts from a thin-toned soubrette in the first two acts to inexpressive excess of volume during the latter two, but personality, whether vocal or stage, was notable only through its absence. Her Italian was as unidiomatic as I have heard. Jurgita Adamonytė’s Cherubino was perfectly adequate, but little more: one longed for Christine Schäfer, originally slated for the role. Marie McLaughlin, however, made a fine Marcellina. It was a pity to lose her aria, the ‘traditional’, regrettable cuts being made. It was a matter of great sadness, though, to witness Robert Lloyd’s Bartolo fail to keep up with the orchestra, both in his vendetta aria and in ensembles. Let us hope that this was just an off-day.

And yet… there were two stellar performances from Erwin Schrott as Figaro and Marius Kwiecien as the Count. Both are artists – and actors – of extraordinary charisma. Testosterone levels registered during their confrontations might well have exceeded all previous records. Never have I felt so keenly the fury of Figaro’s ‘Perché no?’ immediately prior to the third act finale. The Count’s frustrations of his valet had finally pushed him too far; I thought he might kill his master. For the chemistry between the two baritones was something special indeed, their relationship far more credible than any other. Kwiecien possessed the stage as to the manor born, the dark arrogance of his vocal portrayal enhanced by his physical presence. And the slipping away of his authority, supplanted by the upstart Figaro, was if anything all the more impressive in its astonishing subtlety. But victor, of course, there could only be one: Schrott left one in no doubt that this was ultimately Figaro’s show. Try as I might, I could not summon up a single reservation – and, to be frank, I have no inclination to do so. Whether it be his ease with the Italian language, the diction of extraordinary and meaningful clarity, not least in his daring sashays into parlando delivery, the beauty of his legato tone, the smouldering sexuality, or the equally extraordinary vulnerability displayed in his fourth-act aria, this Figaro had it all. Schrott’s is an assumption every bit the equal of his astounding Don Giovanni.

Greatness was present on stage, then, and also in the pit. Sir Colin Davis’s previous conducting of this production in 2006 marks one of the highlights of my operatic experience, unsurpassed and unsurpassable. My enthusiasm on this occasion was slightly tempered by a slightly staid quality to the opening of the first act, but I suspect that I should never even have noticed this from another conductor. I was unconvinced, moreover, by the need for harpsichord continuo during the orchestral recitatives, but nor was it a matter of great import. For warmth and dramatic flow proved second to none thereafter, likewise the sheer sensuous delight of Mozart’s orchestral genius. Nothing was rushed, and yet the score pulsated with life. (Nikolaus Harnoncourt is quite right to bemoan the current fad for performing Mozart as fast as possible, quite right to suggest that the music ends up sounding like Rossini. The only problem is that Harnoncourt’s own musical response to the ‘problem’ is generally so perverse.) Silken strings, beguiling woodwind, cruelly ravishing horns of cuckoldry: one could not have wished for more, and no praise would be high enough for the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, which put not a finger wrong. This is what Mozart performance, the most difficult and yet rewarding task in the world, should sound like. Davis’s structural command was likewise as impressive as any I have heard, enough to silence once and for all the doubters who claim that sonata forms cannot be aurally perceived in theatrical performance. Try telling that to anyone who listened to – as opposed to merely heard – this rendition of the Act Two finale. And to hear the world stop for the moment of forgiveness at the end, with no disruption to the structure of the act, was an object lesson in operatic direction. Truly one has to go back to Böhm or Erich Kleiber to hear Mozart conducting of such distinction. One could forgive a great deal, if not quite the selfish audience contingent, for such an opportunity.