Sunday 29 November 2015

Le nozze di Figaro, Vienna State Opera, 27 November 2015

Images: Wiener Staatsoper / Michael Pöhn
Count Almaviva (Adam Plachetka)
Vienna State Opera

Count Almaviva – Adam Plachetka
Countess Almaviva – Véronique Gens
Susanna – Aida Garifullina
Figaro – Alessio Arduini
Cherubino – Elena Maximova
Marcellina – Ulrike Helzel
Don Basilio – Thomas Ebenstein
Don Curzio – Peter Jelosits
Don Bartolo – Dan Paul Dumitrescu
Antonio – Manuel Walser
Barbarina – Maria Nazarova

Jean-Louis Martinoty (director)
Hans Schavernoch (designs)
Sylvie de Segonzac (costumes)
Fabrice Kebour (lighting)

Chorus of the Vienna State Opera (chorus master: Thomas Lang)
Orchestra of the Vienna State Opera
James Gaffigan (conductor)


Four weeks precisely before seeing this Marriage of Figaro in Vienna, I had seen the Royal Academy of Music production at the Hackney Empire. It might sound as if I am exaggerating for effect, but I can assure you that I am not; in almost every respect, the RAM performance was superior. We should not become hung up on matters of cultural ‘ownership’ – Mozart was not really ‘Austrian’ at all, whatever the tourist board might tell you – but that nevertheless gives one pause for thought. Although I said ‘in almost every respect’, other shortcomings were dwarfed by Jean-Louis Martinoty’s catastrophe of a production: at least as bad as, if not worse than, Barrie Kosky’s effort for the Komische Oper in Berlin, albeit in different ways. I had been going to ask why Figaro, so long a relatively ‘safe bet’ with respect to staging – relative, at least, to Don Giovanni – was having such a bad time of it now. (Janet Suzman’s work for that wonderful RAM staging was a noteworthy exception.) Then I learned that Martinoty’s production had actually been imported from the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. Why? As French friends have since told me, it was bad enough then, in the 1990s. Is it not a little odd that the Vienna State Opera could not create its own new production, even if the import were of better stuff than this?

It is difficult to know where to start with Martinoty’s incoherent, joyless mess. I am not sure whether the director is attempting to be ‘traditional’ or something else. The costumes are ‘period’ of a sort, I suppose, but more akin to a Carry On film idea of the eighteenth century than something into which any thought has gone. I have no objection to a properly thought-out ‘period’ production; indeed, there will often be problems, not insurmountable but problems nevertheless, when a society of orders is jettisoned for something else. This just seemed, however, an excuse for opportunities for the mildest, least risqué of molestations. The politics of Mozart’s opera – even Da Ponte’s libretto, shorn of the music – are not those of Beaumarchais, but they are far from non-existent. Here, it seems, we have something that wants to be a bit of a farce, but cannot quite bring itself to do what is necessary.

Countess Almaviva (Véronique Gens)
The direction, moreover, veers between excessive activity – not quite hyperactivity: that might be too much hard work – and people haplessly standing around. A servant extra might walk in but to no apparent end and then – well, just walk out again. Meanwhile, someone else will be in entirely the wrong place, making a nonsense – and certainly not in a questioning, let alone deconstructionist way – of libretto, score, logic, anything really. Something appears, for instance a kneeler for the Countess in front of one of the many pictures (more on which soon, this from the Crucifixion), has one think it might actually have something to say, then no sooner has she knelt down, she gets back up and nothing more is said or done with it. The prospect of the Countess seeking her salvation in the Church is an intriguing one, but it is certainly not explored here.

Perhaps the worst of Martinoty’s many lapses – he manages somehow to combine the reactionary qualities and general intellectual vacuity of Franco Zeffirelli with the downright incompetence in stagecraft of Katharina Wagner – lies with his ‘treatment’ of Cherubino and the chair during the first act. He is not there. The Count reveals all, or rather does not, because he cannot. A little while later, once music and words have moved on, someone else – Don Basilio, I think – finds him in what I think might have been a linen chest. We see nothing for a while, owing to its placing on stage, and then eventually Cherubino steps out, long after we, or even the characters onstage, have ceased to care. If this were an attempt to play with, even to confound, expectation, it fell flatter than a pancake.

Then there are the weird stage designs. Well, the paintings: there is little else on which to comment. Lots of them, randomly assembled, often but not always still lives, come and go. At random points, they come down from the ceiling; at random points, they go back up. They either bear no discernible relation to the action, or add nothing to it. Why on earth, for instance, is a selection of cheeses suddenly brought before us at the beginning of the fourth act, and why does it equally suddenly disappear? Answers on a Pythonesque postcard, please.

Enough! I do not intend to dwell on the musical performances, since they were not given a chance. However, I must say something. It is difficult to know what to say about James Gaffigan; maybe he was hamstrung by the staging. There was nothing especially wrong with his direction of the orchestra, which at its best could sound gorgeous, but had a surprising tendency towards thinness at times. I could not see the pit, but suspect that, in a house of this size, a few more strings would not have gone amiss. There was a tendency towards (over-)swift tempi, but less than we have had to endure from much of the ‘authenticke’ brigade. He made the same gross miscalculation I recall Sir Charles Mackerras – a bewilderingly overrated Mozart conductor – making when Susanna emerged from the cupboard, needless to say a bit late, in the second act. No wonder here: instead an absurdly fast tempo, doubtless born of ‘performance practice’ dogma, which made it sound as if a horse were released to canter around the paddock.

Susanna (Aida Garifullina) and Figaro
(Alessio Arduini)
The finest vocal performance came from Adam Plachetka as the Count: all heading, it seemed, towards the emotional turmoil and fury of his third-act aria, and all flowing from that thereafter. As alert as the production would permit to his character and its development, this was something one could, in the circumstances, still just about savour. Véronique Gens sang beautifully as the Countess but her voice sometimes seemed a little small for the house. I did not especially care for the ornamentation of her third-act aria, but tastes differ in that respect; if it is to be done, then I doubt it could have been done better than here. Aida Garifullina and Alessio Arduini were an attractive servant pair: visually and often vocally, but they struggled, again perhaps in part from relative smallness of voice, but above all on account of the production, to burn their characters into our affection. Arduini's easy way with the text, though, was indicative of something more, which would doubtless have been more fully realised in another situation. We know Figaro and Susanna, and all the rest so well: none of them fully came into being on this occasion. Elena Maximova and Ulrike Helzel both seemed at times ill at ease with the vocal demands placed upon them; Dan Paul Dumitrescu was an excessively bluff Don Bartolo. However, with a staging such as this, the singers should not necessarily be held responsible.