Friday, 8 March 2013

Le nozze di Figaro, Guildhall, 6 March 2013

Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music and Drama

Figaro – Hadleigh Adams, Joseph Padfield
Susanna – Raphaela Papadakis
Doctor Bartolo – James Platt
Marcellina – Roisin Walsh
Cherubino – Catherine Backhouse
Count Almaviva – Ben McAteer
Basilio – Adam Smith
Countess Almaviva – Magdalena Molendowska
Antonio – Piran Legg
Don Curzio – Joshua Owen Mills
Barbarina – Lauren Zolezzi
Bridesmaids – Alison Langer, Bethan Langford

Martin Lloyd-Evans (director)
Bridget Kimak (designs)
Declan Randall (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

James Adkins (video)
Chorus and Orchestra of the Guildhall School of Music and Drama
Dominic Wheeler (conductor)

What a wonderful surprise this turned out to be! Whilst your reviewer would be more likely to tire even of Tristan than of Figaro, he approached this evening in somewhat jaded fashion. Had the experience of once again teaching this term’s ‘Mozart’s Operas’ undergraduate course led him ever so slightly to take an opera whose perfection yields only to that of Così fan tutte? At any rate, this sparking performance, from an engaging cast of young singers, in – for once – an appropriately sized theatre came as a tonic. Not everything was perfect, of course, but it proved as a whole a superior experience to a number I have experienced in the most celebrated of houses.  

I was initially sceptical concerning Martin Lloyd-Evans’s staging, which relocates the action to a present-day American electoral campaign, Almaviva the candidate, in what, judging by the hint of ‘local colour’ from the chorus – a slightly questionably ‘Occidentalist’ touch, I thought – might perhaps have been New Mexico. The Overture depicts illegal immigration, the Count included, suggesting hypocrisy in the ‘two years later’ Republican hard line upon his successors. That all might sound rather remote from the concerns of Figaro – and it is really. But it is little more ultimately than a framing device, permitting the action proper to take place within a hotel campaign headquarters, making some sense of the subservient staff roles allotted to Figaro, Susanna, et al. Less jars than one might expect; the droit de seigneur does not take so very much transformation into workplace harassment. The richness of an eighteenth-century society of orders is lost, of course – how commonplace a late-capitalist hierarchy of money and politics seems by contrast – but we have the former in the back of our minds anyway.

There is some surprising re-ordering in the third act. For instance, ‘E Susanna non vien ... Dove sono’ after the Count’s aria came as quite a jolt. I assume the point to have been to place the Almavivas in closer dramatic counterpoint. In a fashion, it worked, but I am not sure that it was worth the upheaval; Mozart’s tonal planning is not lightly to be tossed aside. However, the production must be vigorously applauded for eschewing the wretched ‘traditional’ cuts in Act Four, permitting us to hear both Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias. They are not simply ‘worth hearing’; they contribute immeasurably to Da Ponte’s construction of a battle between the sexes and place Figaro’s aria, which can otherwise seem to signal a somewhat bewildering change of focus, in context. Great Mozart conductors as well as poor ones have assented to the cuts; that does not make them any more palatable.

Dominic Wheeler’s direction of the score surprised me too. I do not mean that personally; so far as I can recall, I have not heard him before. However, I have become so wearily resigned to present-day conductors having not the slightest understanding of Mozart, that to find one whose name is not Davis or Barenboim conducting so warmly sympathetic an account comes as a genuine surprise. Very little, if anything, was hard-driven. (One of the greatest problems, perhaps the greatest, we experience today is conductors who think that denying music space to breathe – and that does not by any means equate to crotchets per minute – is somehow ‘exciting’ or ‘dramatic’; it is of course quite the opposite.) Tempi were generally apt, only the Countess’s arias proving problematical, the first dragging – again, not a matter of speed, but of insufficient harmonic motion – and the second proving a little too rushed. More to the point, Mozart’s harmonic-dramatic development was for the most part ably communicated: no mean feat. If there were occasions when the orchestra – strings, quite adequate for a small theatre – lost momentum, none ultimately proved so very grievous, and there was much fine playing to be balanced against such lapses.

There was, moreover, not really a weak link in the cast; every one of the Guildhall singers shone in one way or another. A slightly shaky start soon gave way to a vigorous performance from Ben McAteer as the Count. His Countess, Magdalena Molendowska, however unflattered by her costume in the third and fourth acts, showed considerable dignity in stage presence and in voice. Raphaela Papadakis proved a lively Susanna – without which any performance will fall flat. Catherine Backhouse was splendidly convincing as Cherubino in gawky female guise. Even if the coloratura of her aria sometimes proved a little much, Roisin Walsh offered a convincing Marcellina, at the very least matched by those taking the other ‘smaller’ roles, amongst whom I should single out Lauren Zolezzi’s beautifully sung Barbarina. The greatest praise should, however, be offered to I due Figaro. No need to worry: I have not taken on an unaccountable tendresse towards Mercadante. An ailing Hadleigh Adams, however, ceded his arias to Joseph Padfield. I wondered whether he need have done, so convincing were both his stage presence and his handling of Mozart’s quicksilver lines; indeed, there seemed to be no need whatsoever to make allowances. Padfield, however, offered an equally convincing, slightly darker, assumption of the arias from the side of the stage. Both singers richly deserved their enthusiastic applause, as did the production as a whole.