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Saturday, 21 July 2012

Le Nozze di Figaro at Glyndebourne


Quite a while ago now, but better late than never? This production (directed by Michael Grandage) was a frustrating as it seemed to have such potential as a concept, but had so many ideas that no one followed through with, and aside from the updating it didn't feel like there was enough risk taking or sense of purpose. At least it wasn't updated to the 50's.

photo by Alastair Muir

Putting Figaro in the Alhambra is cool - despite its setting being clearly set out in Da Ponte's libretto, Spanish references in productions of this opera are usually few and far between, so it's nice to bring out this element for a change. But here it changed nothing about the presentation of the action or the drama, and in the end this was as traditional a production as I have ever seen. Why bother making the Islamic reference if you're not going to follow up on it?* Just to look pretty?

Even more pointless was setting it in the early 70's - this creates problems because the whole plot centres around avoidance of the Almavida's Feudal right (and no attempt was made to address this anachronism), but added nothing in terms of casting the drama in a new light. My instant thought was that if they'd made it a commune (all the rage at that time), with Almaviva as the head honcho, he may well have had a "right" to the women in the commune, and he'd still be a figure of (abusive) power. Also, the Count cannot be a truly threatening character due only to his status in the 70's because there were of course by that time severe limitations on his power and what he could do to his servants. For there to be a real sense of dread he'd simply have to be a physically or psychologically threatening man (which he wasn't at all here) but then this would render certain character's actions inexplicable without some further serious character regie. I don't like when things are just glossed over. I've seen reviewers suggest that this weakening of the Count is a strength of the production (e.g. Rupert Christiansen of all people!) - it's not, it undermines the drama.

photo by Alastair Muir

I missed too the painful edge of this opera, the bitter tang of every trick which rebounds and causes almost as much suffering on the trick player as the victim. This idea is taken up by Da Ponte less subtly in Cosi Fan Tutte, and in fact becomes the central thrust of the drama, but in Figaro it's just one of a number of important interlocking elements. Itis of course also so beautifully encapsulated in Mozart's music that it's impossible to ignore; when it is, as here, the whole things falls flat and ends up being rather bland - nothing more than non threatening buffoonery, japes and mild humour. Of course there were roars of laughter every time people danced in a 70s style to Mozart's music. People are so very easily pleased.

As to Christopher Oram's sets - I have to say that though very detailed, I thought lots of the scenery was rather crudely rendered and far less beautiful than actual examples of Islamic architecture and ceramics of this period. One big problem was that both the window and the main door of the the Countess' bedroom were deeply recessed into the right hand wall and so key points of the action in Act 2 (Cherubino's jump, and the locking of the doors) were invisible to half the audience. So unecessary.

The cast were very young, each debuing their role as far as I can tell, and though youth is entirely appropriate in this piece, their inexperience showed. Michael Grandag 's direction, which is detailed but quite unspecific, rendered characters generic and largely uninteresting, with emotional content relegated to the background, and larger dramatic arches left undernourished. But more experienced singers can often transcend an indifferent production and at least effect something special in their own parts. Overall I found it hard to feel too much for any of the characters.

photo by Alastair Muir

Sally Matthew's Countess was vocally by some distance the most impressive cast member, but due to the production seemed short of genuine pathos, and so failed to move the heart. The costumes saw to it that she couldn't be elegant or graceful, but I'm not sure the voice is quite right either for capturing this character's poise, warmth or softness. A few months ago I wrote about her voice as it sounded close up in the Wigmore Hall, and my impression wasn't all that different here - it's superbly produced, extremely even, technically very secure, but also extremely covered which gives it a shiny, but rather dark and steely unfeminine edge. The top gleams, but it's laser like rather than crystalline. I love her Fiordiligi here and here and I think it's probably a much more interesting role for her.

Lydia Teuscher's Susanna was quite nice, but in voice types this common one can afford to be very picky, and she offerend nothing truly distinctive. I thought she was occasionally quite hoarse in the upper register too. Vito Priante's Figaro was also decently sung but overall slightly bland. Audun Iversen's Count Almaviva was more interesting vocally, but had too many comedy double takes (which the crowd ate up) to be credible. Isabel Leonard made a decent Cherubino, nicely sung, but again failed to be very memorable. All the supporting roles were adequately taken (except for Ann Murray's Marcellina who was far more than adequate - such a natural presence on stage, and still far more than acceptable vocally).

Robin Ticciati was in the pit and all eyes are surely on him at the moment since he was announced last season as Glyndebourne's next music director, succeeding Jurowski in 2014 (with a rumoured Rosenkavalier, another Glyndebourne classic). I was absolutely enthralled by his Don Giovanni last season with the OAE which was full blooded, ultra detailed and thrillingly intense. His Figaro was also very good, sensittively played and carefully thought out, but it felt a bit too much like the production: all a bit subdued and soft, lacking piquancy and bite. Still he's profoundly musical and has excellent rapor with his musicians who manage to play superbly apparently in spite of his almost obstinate lack of clear beat. He's so young too - I have no fears whatsoever about his take over (though at the moment Jurowski seems quite determined to make us regret that he's going with superlative performances every time.)

Perhaps surprisingly, this Figaro is a co production with the Met, a much larger stage, so presumably the sets will all have to be rebuilt for then. Hopefully they'll hire some experts in Islamic art, improve the look of it, and iron out some of the set's problems. Although it is an updating that will no doubt receieve some grumbles when it crosses the pond, there is nothing here at all to challenge the arch conservative Met audience intellectually, morally or emotionally.

*In fact, it gave me such a good idea for a production but I don't want to write it here for fear that the idea will be stolen!

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