Le Nozze di Figaro – For Better or Worse, a Bourgeois ‘Figaro’ in London

by Daniel J. Wakin (The New York Times)

«In this European musical capital, the highest-profile homage to Mozart during his anniversary year came about with surprising casualness.

“We have strong productions of ‘Così Fan Tutte,’ ‘Don Giovanni,'” said Antonio Pappano, the music director of the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, “as well as ‘The Magic Flute.’ ” But the existing version of “Le Nozze di Figaro” had been put to rest, and it was time to bring the opera back.

“It was a no-brainer for us to do this piece,” said Mr. Pappano, who is increasingly popular as a conductor here and also leads the orchestra of the Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia in Rome.

The production, directed by the busy David McVicar, opened on Tuesday. It is a highlight of the celebrations for the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth in London, which will have a steady but low-key diet of performances in his honor by the city’s major orchestras and other groups this year.

Mr. Pappano pointed out in an interview that the opera house would present two lesser Mozart operas, “La Finta Giardiniera” and “Il Re Pastore,” next season. “I wanted to do one big one,” he said. “We didn’t have ‘Marriage of Figaro’ in the house. I needed to set that right.”

If the decision was not revolutionary, neither is the production — stylistically or conceptually.

In a program note, Mr. McVicar rejects the idea that the opera, based on Beaumarchais’s play challenging the aristocracy, was some sort of prelude to the French Revolution. Rather, Mozart and Beaumarchais “were part of an emerging bourgeois class, more interested in establishing their autonomous right to earn a living and be respected for their own achievements than leading mobs to the gates of Versailles.”

He said he chose to focus on the “democratizing idea” of the marriage contract, of the freedom to choose a spouse and of love itself.

While generally well received by London critics, the production took some darts for sidestepping sharper political issues.

“There is a hole at the heart of this ‘Figaro,’ a gaping void of ideas, a mentality that puts surface-dressing above interpretation,” Andrew Clark wrote in The Financial Times. “We get no flavor of why the work had such incendiary implications for its day.”

But Mr. Pappano said: ” ‘Figaro’ always gets that kind of treatment, in a sense, from critics. They’re always looking for political angle.” He pointed to Act III, in which Figaro stands up to Count Almaviva.

“This is one moment in the piece,” he said. “A lot of the piece is people chasing skirts. The relationship thing is much stronger than the fact that Figaro is a servant. It’s human relationships that are very, very important from the essential point of view, and marriage, and almost-marriage, and old love affairs.”

How the attraction and conflict between the characters are conveyed has been “worked out very, very carefully,” he said.

“Everybody’s fighting to get what they want, and everybody has tremendous ego,” he added. “You have to go to the extreme with each character.”

The opera does, after all, take place on the mad day of a marriage, he said. “There’s an incredible fever, which, when you think about it, on a wedding day is the usual atmosphere.”

Mr. McVicar’s direction emphasizes these passions. Count Almaviva and Figaro are, shall we say, in close physical contact with Susanna. There are violent touches: a shocking slap of the Countess by the Count and a catfight in which Susanna tears the bonnet off of her rival and soon-to-be-mother-in-law, Marcellina. One of the traditional slaps — when Susanna smacks Figaro, mistakenly thinking he wants to marry Marcellina — is replaced by a strategically aimed knee.

The action is placed in “the milieu of” a French chateau in 1830, Mr. McVicar writes, despite the opera’s setting in Spain. It is the eve of the July Revolution that led to the final overthrow of the Bourbons and the establishment of the “bourgeois” monarchy of Louis-Philippe.

Musically, the production and its unusually strong cast received much praise.

Erwin Schrott, the Uruguayan bass who recently performed Figaro at the Los Angeles Opera, was singled out in the role, along with Gerald Finley, a Canadian, as an unusually menacing Count Almaviva. Miah Persson, a Swede, made her Covent Garden debut as Susanna, and Dorothea Röschmann, a German who is making her reputation in Mozart roles, sang the Countess. Rinat Shaham, an Israeli-born mezzo-soprano, sang Cherubino.

Mr. Pappano played the harpsichord continuo and conducted an 18th-century-flavored orchestra. The trumpets and horns were natural, valveless instruments (with tubes added or subtracted), giving a more pungent and mellow quality to the sound.»

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