Saturday 31 October 2015

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Academy Opera, 30 October 2015

Images: Robert Workman

Hackney Empire Theatre

Susanna – Charlotte Schoeters
Figaro – Božidar Smiljanić
Bartolo – Timothy Murphy
Marcellina – Claire Barnett-Jones
Cherubino – Katherine Aitken
Count Almaviva – Henry Neil
Basilio – John Porter
Countess Almaviva – Emily Garland
Antonio – Alex Otterburn
Barbarina – Lorena Paz Nieto
Don Curzio – Mikhail Shepelenko
Two Girls – Lorena Paz Nieto, Katie Stevenson

Janet Suzman (director)
Fotini Dimou (designs)
Jake Wiltshire (lighting)
Victoria Newlyn (choreography)

Royal Academy Opera Chorus (chorus master: Frederick Brown)
Royal Academy Sinfonia
Jane Glover (conductor)

A lazy assumption I used to make was that Don Giovanni was, as the cliché now has it, ‘a director’s graveyard’; it also seemed almost always to lack something in performance, Daniel Barenboim being the Furtwänglerian exception. A parallel, or related, lazy assumption was that The Marriage of Figaro somehow always survived. Directors felt on surer ground, without the overt Catholicism of the later opera, which seemingly either mystified – in pretty much any sense – or repelled them. A good cast would see it through, and surely singers and conductors could hardly fail to respond to its magic, performing ideologies notwithstanding. The former assumption still seems to hold, although I am less inclined to make excuses on behalf of directors who make a mess of it; it really need not be so difficult as they seem to think it. The problem really does not lie with the work, and if opera houses present an unholy composite version from Prague and Vienna, then they only have themselves to blame. However, many recent performances of Figaro seem to have fallen prey to the curse too. I shall not list them, but too many have been dispiriting. And, frankly, one dispiriting Figaro is far too many.

Figaro (Božidar Smiljanić)

Such clouds were well and truly dispelled in this quickening evening at the Hackney Empire, the first of Royal Academy Opera’s temporary homes whilst its theatre is renovated. You might react with scepticism if I tell you that, overall – and opera is always a business of ‘overall’, as well as ‘in part’, and so on – this was one of the best Figaros I have seen, certainly one of the best for quite some time. I really did not have a single cause for complaint, which is quite something when it comes to Mozart in general and to this opera in particular, for whom and for which perfection seems, cruelly, to be the only acceptable response.

Janet Suzman’s production plays the work pretty straight: no bad thing, Claus Guth’s Strindbergian conception for Salzburg surely being destined to remain an exception. One might even, if not paying proper attention, think it more or less a ‘period’ production to begin with. However, it soon becomes clear – and indeed always is, so long as one’s eyes are doing a little light work – that we are not in eighteenth-century Spain, although there certainly seems to be a kinship, indeed a strong kinship, with Lorenzo da Ponte’s original setting. We are, in fact, in pre-revolutionary Cuba, as we hear too, as soon as Bartolo’s first aria, Siviglia having become Havana. Havana, Suzman writes, ‘boasted an elegant, bedraggled, inward-looking post-colonial aristocracy, a peasant population desperate for change, and sported perfectly beautiful great houses on the verge of collapse’. The ‘look’, then, is similar, but not the same; abuses are similar, if not quite the same; the droit du seigneur seems eminently credible, perhaps more so than before.

Susanna (Charlotte Schoeters)
However, none of that is hammered home. The political is present, yet, as with the librettist’s – let us leave the composer on one side, just for the moment – adaptation of Beaumarchais, it offers the framework for a human drama, rather than the crux of it. (One can say that, I think, without having to take refuge in the chimera of the ‘timeless’, without claiming that a production should not take a more political stance.) For Suzman, ‘an updated Figaro urges us to take another long look at the fate of the female protagonists, rather than resigning ourselves to their classically sanctioned fate.’ And that seems a good defence of updating and relocating in general. It is handsomely done, Fotini Dimou’s designs lending an air of faded grandeur, again without exaggeration, and Jake Wiltshire’s lighting doing what it should, especially for the garden in the fourth act. Above all, Suzman helps make these characters credible. They are busy, without that ‘busy-ness’ becoming an end in itself, as in the irritating Upstairs Downstairs quality to David McVicar’s Royal Opera staging. The difference between Mozart as composer of opera seria and Mozart as composer of opera buffa can be exaggerated, or relied upon as a substitute for engagement, but production and performance truly imparted a sense of what is wondrous and perhaps new here.
The Countess (Emily Garland)

For it was in the performances themselves that, quite rightly, the magic truly lay. Charlotte Schoeters and Božidar Smiljanić presented a lively, in no sense caricatured – as can sometimes be the danger with buffo characters – Susanna and Figaro. One felt their emotions almost as if they were one’s own, appreciated their knowingness – and their ignorance. Henry Neill, looking like a younger version of Jorge Bolet, at times perhaps seemed a little too young, but if the worst plaint one has is of youth, it is hardly serious. He captured Almaviva’s mood-swings well, and his lechery, without that descending into the unwanted realm of farce. His Countess, Emily Garland, enchanted on an operatic – with or without inverted commas – scale, intimate and grander gestures at one with her character and that character’s predicament. This was a worthy successor performance to her Suor Angelica earlier this year. Cherubinos rarely disappoint; it is such a gift of a mezzo role. That, however, is no reason to overlook a success such as that of Katherine Aitken, every moment of her performance, whether musically or acting, alive to the moment. Every member of the cast shone, and yet was very much part of a larger whole. To mention just two others, Claire Barnett-Jones carried off the burden of age with great success as Marcellina, whilst Lorna Paz Nieto made the most of her small role – a role which yet, so often, imprints itself upon the memory – as Barbarina. Diction was without exception excellent; one could have taken dictation, both verbal and musical.

Last but certainly not least, Jane Glover and the Royal Academy Sinfonia played Mozart’s score to the manoir born. I do not think I have heard such consummate conducting of Figaro since the late Sir Colin Davis. Glover never drew attention to herself, always sounded at Mozart’s service, and brought the music to life with a knowledge and wisdom that can only come with years of acquaintance. Her orchestra was crisp, warm, exciting, beguiling, knowing, innocent: all of those necessary things and more. It commented upon and partook in the action in equal measure, structure and ‘expression’ as one. Despite relatively small forces (, this was a proudly full-sounding ensemble, eminently capable of filling the theatre. So, I think, was this evening as a whole. If you still have chance, do what you can to beg, borrow, or steal a ticket. Otherwise, we shall hear May Night next term and, as Glover’s farewell as Director of Opera, L’incoronazione di Poppea in the summer.