Wednesday 21 February 2024

Le nozze di Figaro, Deutsche Oper, 20 February 2024

Count Almaviva – Thomas Lehman
Countess Almaviva – Maria Motolygina
Susanna – Lilit Daviyan
Figaro – Artur Garbas
Cherubino – Meechot Marrero
Marcellina – Michaela Kaune
Don Basilio – Burkhard Ulrich
Don Curzio – Chance Jonas-O’Toole
Bartolo – Padraic Rowan
Antonio – Patrick Guetti
Barbarina – Ketevan Chuntishvili
Two Bridesmaids – Yuuki Tamai, Asaha Wada

Director – Götz Friedrich
Set designs – Herbert Wernicke
Costumes – Herbert Wernicke, Ogün Wernicke
Revival director – Gerlinde Pelkowski

Chorus (chorus director: Thomas Richter) of the Deutsche Oper
Orchestra of the Deutsche Oper
Giulio Cilona (conductor)

DIE HOCHZEIT DES FIGARO von Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,
Deutsche Oper Berlin,copyright: Bettina Stöß
Count Almaviva (Thomas Lehman), Susanna (Lilit Dayivan), Don Basilio (Burkhard Ulrich)

Next stop on my tour of Berlin’s ‘vintage’ opera productions: Götz Friedrich’s Deutsche Oper Marriage of Figaro, a joy to encounter in itself and a nice sequel to Ruth Berghaus’s Barber of Seville across town at the Staatsoper. Friedrich’s productions are gradually making their way to the great opera house in the sky. When I first came to Berlin, a number of his Wagner stagings, for instance, were still in the repertoire; now there are none. This, from 1978, with designs by Herbert Wernicke – like Berghaus’s designer, Achim Freyer, going on to become a notable director in his own right – is certainly worth catching whilst it is still around. 

For once, I admit it was a relief to see an eighteenth-century society of orders portrayed as it ‘should be’. It is not the case that the drama cannot be reimagined in different settings, nor even that the complexity and hierarchy of such a society need in every case be reproduced (though one loses something if it is not). Yet too often, one gains the impression that a director has simply not bothered; or worse, has not even realised what is at stake. Such is the pathway to vulgar farce. Here, instead, almost everything seemed to fall into place. Not that that necessarily ‘happens’ without a good deal of thought and work, but the impression is important; the world created on stage worked, helped by being in accordance with that created by its librettist and composer, but also enabled to work by them. Even at this remove, there seemed to me no doubt that Friedrich had been involved at every level of this production, had made decisions founded upon musical and historical as well as stage understanding, and that characters and their relationships had been properly considered.

Costumes and their changes were never arbitrary or simply on account of a ‘look’, or even a concept. They had historical meaning and often looked handsome – Cheubino’s uniform, for instance – without being a fetishistic recreation, in which similarly the ‘look’ rather than the drama was the thing. Cherubino’s hiding from the Count actually worked for once; the number of times directors simply mess that up is, alas, all too numerous for comfort. I liked the touch of having the Count assert his manorial authority in front of the house’s customary picture of his ancestors. Likewise the audience room in which the last two scenes of that third act were set. Such attention to detail would chime with many people’s experience of visiting such houses and their estates and would therefore help bring to life the historical record, as well more straightforwardly as making sense of what was said, sung, and done. 

Perhaps more important, the choreography made sense, listening to the music rather than simply disregarding it in the usual ‘modern silly dance’ routines unmusical directors or their associates foist upon opera. (By all means offer something in counterpoint to it, however that may be understood, but at least do the score and its historical context the decency of listening to them first rather than simply skim-reading a libretto.) Scene changes were more frequent than will often be the case now: not only between but sometimes within acts. Current directors would do it differently, no doubt, but different is sometimes just different, not necessarily better or worse. 

Cherubino (Meechot Marrero), Countess Almaviva (Maria Motolygina), Count Almaviva

To questions concerning the opera are to what extent knowledge of the play and indeed of its sequel are expected. At one level, none: many of us saw and loved it before proceeding to Beaumarchais in either incarnation. Did Da Ponte and/or Mozart, though, expect any such knowledge, in the first instance by not having to show something that might have caused trouble with the censor; or, milder still, does one gain further insight from having done so? Here, rightly, the question was left open. No one was compelled to have extra knowledge, but we had both a sense of difference from the corresponding play that suggested purpose rather than mere accident, and one could certainly read aspects of the characters to suggest their lives had developed from the first instalment (even from Rossini after the fact; Paisiello too, I think). Thus when confrontations between Figaro and the Count were less studies in contemporary masculinity than will often, quite reasonably the case, one was led to think of their history together—and, as Friedrich noted in a fascinating programme interview, the fact that the Count is not an idiot, indeed most likely he is a man of the Enlightenment himself, entrusted as he will shortly be to represent his country as the ambassador in London. This, one might say, is him regretting the passing of certain aspects of something he knows to be wrong and attempting to recover them through guile, not through neofeudal reaction pushed to the level of absurdist tyranny. That, after all, is the story being told in the opera, though often one would not know it. The director may or may not have good reason for taking a slightly different line, just as (s)he might for failing to recognise what once had passed between the Count and Rosina, as once we knew here, but it is good to know, and to have suggested to us, that such matters have at least been considered.

And so, if I have been more thrilled by portrayals of Figaro and the Count, I came to appreciate a subtle more placing of them and the rest of the household within a greater social whole. Thomas Lehman and Artur Garbas did not seem to be presenting a modern portrayal and falling short; they were doing something different, as was Friedrich. Lilit Daviyan’s Susanna was not so different from what one might expect, though that is not to say she took anything for granted. Maria Motolygina’s Countess truly came into her own in ‘Dove sono’, a finely yet not fussily coloured account, in which musical means conveyed dramatic ends. Meechot Marrero’s Cherubino was not only dramatically alert but perhaps uncommonly beautifully sung. Michaela Kaune’s Marcellina offered a surprising star drunken turn in her fourth-act aria, for once retained. It was a pity still to be missing Don Basilio’s, but Burkhard Ulrich made a fine impression elsewhere: for once, a reading (Friedrich’s too, of course) that presented him as music master rather than a bizarrely camp caricature as has been recently fashionable. Everyone made a mark as required without overshadowing the rest of the company, down to Chance Jonas-O’Toole’s Don Curzio, whom one actually noticed in the sextet as well as before it, simply (or so it seemed) by virtue of Friedrich having given matters due consideration, as well as excellent singing. 

I cannot be so enthusiastic about Giulio Cilona’s conducting, though on the whole it seemed preferable to what I had heard last month in The Magic Flute. The Overture, hard-driven and with little audible at times other than rasping brass, brought us close in the wrong way to Rossini, as did too much of the first act. If there was little depth to what followed and a few too many disjunctions between pit and stage, especially during ensembles, at least it showed greater flexibility. And it certainly improved, the third and fourth acts more all-purpose ‘light’ rather than motoric. That Friedrich’s production survived and shone is all the more testament to its virtues—and to the cast that brought them back to life.