Wednesday 1 May 2024

Le nozze di Figaro, Komische Oper, 27 April 2024


Count Almaviva – Hubert Zapiór
Countess Almaviva – Nadja Mchantaf
Susanna – Penny Sofroniadou
Figaro – Tommaso Barea
Cherubina – Susan Zarrabi
Marcellina – Karolina Gumos
Bartolo – Tijl Faveyts
Basilio – Johannes Dunz
Antonio – Peter Lombert
Cherubino – Georgy Kudrenko
Count’s henchman – Nikita Kukushkin
Young man – Nikita Elenev

Director, designs – Kirill Serebrennikov
Co-set designer – Olga Pavlyuk
Co-costume designer – Tatyana Dolmatovskaya
Choreography – Evgeny Kulagin
Dramaturgy – Julia Jordà Stoppelhaar, Daniil Orlov
Lighting – Olaf Freese
Video – Ilya Shgalov

Orchestra of the Komische Oper
James Gaffigan (conductor)

Images: Monika Rittershaus

It is currently fashionable to treat the three operas Mozart wrote with Lorenzo Da Ponte as a ‘trilogy’. There is nothing wrong with that in principle: that is, in commissioning a director (perhaps a conductor too and some of the cast) to stage all three. Nor is there anything wrong with attempting to draw out dramatic themes hold in common. What is sauce for the musicological goose should also be sauce for the performing gander, and vice versa. Results, however, seem more mixed: more, it seems to me, because the gander will not necessarily pay as much attention as he might, if not to the goose, then at least to the intrinsic qualities of the works themselves. Sadly, the Staatsoper Unter den Linden’s decision to entreat all three works to Vincent Huguet resulted in three productions that ranged from the merely vacuous to the catastrophic. Neither (relatively) recent experiments in this respect from the Salzburg Festival has resulted, to my mind in great success, though at least Claus Guth came up with a memorable, in the best sense provocative Marriage of Figaro. The jury must remain partially out on Kirill Serebrennikov for Berlin’s Komische Oper, with a Don Giovanni to come; yet, whilst this new Figaro has a number of things to commend it, it also proves considerably more problematical than his excellent Così fan tutte (premiered in Zurich). 

The set offers a literal upstairs-downstairs setting: eminently suitable, one might think, for a drama involving relations between masters and servants. In many ways, it is, though the sheer grubbiness of the ‘downstairs’, rows of washing machines to excite disgraced ex-MP Keith Vaz, seems in a not especially productive way to be a little too much. An old woman gets a great deal of ironing done, though, and cast members, especially male ones, freely change their clothes in an uninviting environment, which also plays host to a torture-interrogation scene for Figaro’s trial (again, perhaps a little too much, not least in its disregard for the words and music being sung and played). Above seems to be an art gallery, though it may just be that expensive works of art and, latterly, an exhibition are to be seen in the Almavivas’ private residence. An older painting is damaged and sent for repair, though I do not think we see it again; it is replaced by a shallow, kitschy installation-world with neon slogans, which, as video commentary and a spoken intervention by Dr Bartolo inform us, poses questions about contemporary relationships between hyperreality and simulation. ‘Capitalism kills love’; reads one; I presume the banal truism to be deliberate, although my wager would be small. One of the neon signs reads ‘FESTA FOLLIA’, ‘party madness’, which at least has relevance to what is going on and perhaps even to the folle journée of Beaumarchais’s title. We are, I presume, invited to read this into what else is unfolding dramatically, and that seemed to me at least a fruitful way to proceed, but connections both with what we saw and with the work might have been made clearer. 

I realise talk about ‘not trusting’ the work and its creators runs the risk of sounding, indeed perhaps being, unduly reactionary. It and they will survive to fight another day, and there is plenty of room, or should be, for productions that take their leave from a work to say something different, as well as those more evidently at its ‘service’. That said, I could not help find some of what we saw unduly provisional, as if the director had either run out of time, or simply could not be bothered. Serebrennikov certainly has ideas; this is not a Huguet-style disaster, far from it. Whether they are pursued with sufficient rigour to be comprehensible to an audience, let alone to form a coherent argument, is sometimes less clear. 

For there is much messing about with the text, without much in the way of gain from it. Characters are eliminated, redeployed, invented with scant justification, and the old(ish) trick of using titles to say something else begins to look a little threadbare. Why Bartolo’s first-act aria is cut, only to reappear in the third act I have no idea. The character’s sudden appearance in the second act finale is surprising, since no one will have any idea who he is, save for a text-message exchange (video again) between him and Marcellina earlier on. Text messages also feature heavily in the splitting of the role of Cherubino between a silent, highly physical male actor and a frumpily dressed ‘Cherubina’, who relays his messages to others. We read in the programme the extraordinary claim that Serebrennikov ‘gets round the operatic convention of casting a soprano in the role … (rather overstretching the imagination of the audience) and he makes Cherubino into a credible rival’. If high Victorianism could readily manage such gender fluidity and the ‘convention’ dates back not only to the premiere but to the entire conception of the work, it does not seem too much of an ‘overstretch’ to ‘imagine’ that Berlin in 2024 could cope. Perish the thought that disguise might also be crucial to the role and drama. The more fundamental idea, though, is that ‘a personification of eros’, who ‘cannot hear or speak’ uses as ‘his only weapon … passion, utilising his whole body’. Perhaps, though, presenting a hearing actor imitating deaf speech might have been rethought, so as to offer representation to a deaf actor. It is surely only a coincidence, though, that this gave Serebrennikov another opportunity to depict male undress and nudity. 

Barbarina is nowhere to be seen; I had thought her part might be united with that of ‘Cherubina’; that might have made some sense. It seemed to be in the third act, but then for some reason or none, the Countess sang her cavatina in the fourth act. A further odd claim, moreover, is that made by dramaturge Julia Jordà Stoppelhaar in the programme that Serebrennikov ‘becomes even more of a Kammerspiel [chamber play]’ by eliminating the chorus and allegedly ‘supporting roles’ (Nebenrollen). Since he adds a good few of his own, such as the bizarre, pet-playing ‘Count’s henchman’ – nothing necessarily wrong with bizarre, but even so – and another ‘Young man’, as well as other extras drawn from the Komparserie, the claim seems at best tenuous even on its own terms. The greater problem lies in what has been lost, musically too, nowhere more so than in the near nonsense of hearing much of the chorus music with orchestra alone (or, in the first act, shared between soloists and harpsichord). 

Interpolation of music from Mozart’s Dissonance Quartet to suggest (I presume) the neurotic, white-glove-wearing Count’s fragile state of mind, might have made greater impact had it been better played; it actually took me some time to realise what it had actually been (however obvious the selection). The debt owed to – no, let us be scrupulously fair, coincidence with – the better thought-through Calixto Bieito Fidelio incorporating Beethoven’s Heiliger Dankgesang was too obvious and not at all flattering. A pause would probably have been a better idea, if something must be done at all. I have little idea why the third act began with ‘Soave sia il vento’. The staging seemed to suggest the end of a threesome between the Count, Countess, and Susanna, though nothing that happened afterwards seemed to take that into account. At least, if so, it was a rare acknowledgement that women might have sexuality, or at least sexually attractive qualities, too. Moving Marcellina’s aria to the third act works well, precisely because there is dramatic motivation for the shift, observations on gender becoming part of her curatorial address. It also, to be fair, ensures that we hear a number all too rarely heard. Retention of Basilio’s aria, where it should be, is also greatly appreciated, not least given such an excellent performance, although Serebrennikov’s casual handling of action elsewhere in the fourth act often suggests a little more attention to what is ‘supposed’ to happen might have worked wonders for coherence. Moreover, the aria, sadly for something so rarely encountered in performance, made questionable sense in a portrayal that suggested the character to be far from elderly. 

Otherwise, tonal coherence seemed to be the least thing on anyone’s mind: a pity, given James Gaffigan led a bold, variegated account of Mozart’s music, the level of orchestral playing in general far higher than the unfortunate quartet sounds. Well paced and intelligently supportive both of singers and broader dramatic goals, too often it played second fiddle to Serebrennikov’s ideas, yet remained impressive. So too did much of the singing—and all of the acting. My criticism of the conception of ‘deaf Cherubino’ should not in any sense detract from Georgy Kudrenko’s performance in itself, though it did tend unfortunately to overshadow Susan Zarrabi’s performance. Hubert Zapiór’s made much of his difficult (though, I suspect, rewarding) task as Almaviva, in many ways a fascinating study in the fragility of masculinity. Tommaso Barea was an alert, agile Figaro; it is not his fault that his character seemed somewhat elbowed out by the production. Nadja Mchantaf, a fine singing actress as well as actress, seemed somewhat miscast as the Countess, especially in her first aria; recitatives fared better. Karolina Gumos, Tijl Faveyts,  and Johannes Dunz all shone in their roles. In many ways, it was the remarkably able Penny Sofroniadou who, as Susanna, held things together—which is probably as it ought to be. A little more of ‘what ought to be’, though, might more generally have assisted ‘what might be’.