Tuesday 12 July 2011

Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Holland Park, 10 July 2011

Holland Park

Figaro – Matthew Hargreaves
Susanna – Jane Harrington
Count Almaviva – George van Bergen
Countess Almaviva – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Cherubino – Hannah Pedley
Dr Bartolo – Lynton Black
Marcellina – Sarah Pring
Don Basilio/Don Curzio – Andrew Glover
Antonio – Henry Grant Kerswell
Barbarina – Jaimee Marshall
First Bridesmaid – Katherine Everett
Second Bridesmaid – Kate Warshaw

Liam Steel (director)
Emma Wee (designs)
Colin Grenfell (lighting)

Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Matthew Waldren)
City of London Sinfonia
Matthew Willis (conductor)

I am delighted to report of an estimable performance of Mozart’s imperishable masterpiece, The Marriage of Figaro, above all from the City of London Sinfonia and conductor Matthew Willis. Although I worried slightly during the Overture – and not just because of irritating stage business, of which more anon – the somewhat driven rendition of Mozart’s opening number did not persist any further. Though small in number (the strings numbered only, the orchestra did not sound meagre; indeed, it sounded much fuller of tone than many bands heard in ‘major’ houses, often too fearful of playing out, lest authenticist fatwas be issued (and quite ignoring Mozart’s avowed preference for string sections of a size such as he would never be accorded today). The woodwind was alert, perky, and often magical: here it is, of course, that we often hear the composer at his most tender, the joy and pain of love never more keenly felt. And if one might have felt that heart-rending pain a little more keenly at times – it may not be quite so unbearable here as in Così fan tutte, but it is present nevertheless – there was joy aplenty to be heard. Willis generally chose sound tempi; more to the point, for there is no ‘correct’ answer to questions of tempo, he permitted the music to breathe and showed thoroughgoing understanding of its forms, whether operatic or more ‘instrumental’. (Some would deny the importance of sonata form in Mozart’s operatic writing, but then some would claim that the Earth is flat.) A special word of praise should be accorded to the lively yet never exhibitionistic harpsichord continuo player, Catriona Beveridge, for the ebb and flow between recitative and aria is key to musico-dramatic coherence.

Often, one seems to find either the principal male roles or the principal female roles more strongly taken. Such was the case even at Covent Garden a little over a year ago, when the astounding Count of Mariusz Kwiecien and Figaro of Erwin Schrott quite overshadowed some surprisingly disappointing singing from across the gender divide. This time, though the gulf was not so great, the ladies had it. Jane Harrington made an enchanting Susanna, no irritating soubrette, but a credible, intelligent human being. After occasional early vocal fuzziness – and it was only occasional even then – Elizabeth Llewellyn’s Countess combined with great success beauty of tone and poignancy of affect. Their stage presence was first-rate too. Matthew Hargreaves lacked charisma as Figaro, often sounding a little dry of tone and wooden of manner, and George van Bergen’s Count, whilst musical, lacked a certain masculine punch. There was much to enjoy, however, from Hannah Pedley’s Cherubino and Sarah Pring’s Marcellina, the latter more a woman, less an old hag, than one often hears, and all the better for it. Lorenzo Da Ponte might create stock characters, but Mozart by this stage in his career could not fail to humanise them. Jaimee Marshall also took her brief opportunity to shine in Barbarina’s cavatina. (The ‘traditional’ cuts were employed in the fourth act, though I seem to be almost alone in regretting them.) So whilst this was not the sort of outstanding vocal performance one might hear, say, in Salzburg or Vienna – though one certainly cannot guarantee that even there – there was a commendable sense of company, with all contributing to a palpable sense of love and enthusiasm for Mozart’s score. Fine choral singing played its part here too.

Unfortunately, Liam Steel’s production somewhat detracted from that overall success. I have seen far worse, but, as so often with Mozart’s operas, I felt that too much emphasis was placed upon a narrow understanding of ‘comedy’, as if the form of opera buffa necessarily implied farce. Mozart, we should always remember, is never sadder than when he is smiling. Steel’s production, the programme informs us, takes place in the England of 1914. Quite why, we were not informed. Nothing seems to be gained: perhaps the idea was that an English public would respond more readily to the world of Upstairs Downstairs than to the time and place in which Figaro is set. It is not the end of the world, but struck me as pointless, since this is not an updating in which any positive virtue seems to be made of the new setting. It jars somewhat, therefore, with the eminently ‘period’ backdrop, though one would be clutching at straws to discern such post-modernist jarring as intentional, and again, the question would return, why specifically there and then? That would not matter so much if there were a stronger emphasis lain upon the conflicts that lie at the heart of the drama, but little is made of class distinction, despite sharp direction of the characters on stage, in which one truly has the impression that movement has been thought through and well executed. There is no discernible sense of Mozart’s, let alone Beaumarchais’s, Figaro as chafing at the revolutionary bit. Quite why Susanna appears initially in her underwear and knee high boots remains obscure, for it is an isolated instance in what is certainly not otherwise a raunchy or even erotic production. The incessant stage business, reminiscent of David McVicar’s irritating Covent Garden production, is very well choreographed, almost balletic, but, however well presented, the plethora of extra servants ultimately irritates. In at least nine times out of ten, less is more. What seems on occasion a sensible approach to furniture removal and replacement – that is, a servant does the job – soon becomes an end in itself, with things being moved around to no evident purpose. A good few members of the audience, however, seemed to find hilarious a chair being pushed from one side of the stage. Presumably many of them were the same people who laughed – unforgivably – at the Count’s final plea for forgiveness. Ultimately, this, then, is a production that fails to distinguish between comedic form and serious content, a production whose main purpose seems to be to ‘entertain’; Mozart’s score is so much richer than that. And anyone who finds amusing a plea for divine forgiveness, for that is what the Countess, miraculously, is offering, should steer well clear of Mozart, or indeed of anything more elevated than Donizetti.

Opera Holland Park nevertheless deserves to be taken seriously indeed. This was not a Figaro for which one needed to make ‘allowances’, as one often feels with smaller companies; it was a thoroughly professional performance. It was not perfect, but it compared favourably to what I have sometimes heard in ‘mainstream’ venues – infinitely preferable, for instance, to a recent, truly dreadful effort from the Komische Oper in Berlin – and there was a great deal to enjoy, especially when it came to the orchestra (and there can be few more demanding Mozartians than I in that respect). On that note of being taken seriously, although the translation provided in the surtitles often left a great deal to be desired – it is not to be sung, so why can we not have something stylish and faithful, literal even? – it remains a great relief that OHP continues to present works in the original language. Mozart sounds especially dreadful in English, but I have yet to meet a younger listener who preferred opera in translation. I mention this only because I overheard one man complaining about the use of Italian. There remains, bewilderingly, a category of listeners, generally of a certain age, who extol the non-existent virtues of opera in translation; the greater part of the opera-going public is perfectly content to hear Da Ponte, perhaps if necessary – horror of horrors – even doing a little work beforehand, and to benefit from the titles that have made such translation obsolete. I know plenty of people who stay away from ENO because, sadly, they cannot bear to hear works performed in translation. Perhaps they go too far, but I have neither encountered nor heard of a single person who boycotted the Royal Opera for presenting works in the original language. Three cheers, then, to Opera Holland Park for offering us the real thing and for declining to condescend.