Le Nozze di Figaro – How to arrange a happy marriage
by Anthony Holden (The Observer)
«Napolean supposedly said of Beaumarchais’s play Le mariage de Figaro: ‘C’était la révolution déjà en action.’ First performed in Paris in 1784, it was adapted by Mozart and Da Ponte in Vienna the following year – in secret, because of an imperial ban – and premiered there in 1786, three years before the storming of the Bastille. So why, in his new staging, the Royal Opera’s 250th birthday present to Mozart, does David McVicar fast-forward the action from a pre-revolutionary Spanish castle to an 1830-ish chateau?
To begin to understand that you must delve into McVicar’s programme notes. Steeped in the ardour and learning of this passionate man of the theatre, they explain everything but his maverick choice of time and place. ‘Watch, listen, participate,’ McVicar commands us, preferring to leave such secrets ’embedded within the act of performance’.
Those who don’t read the programme, which should never be necessary, may not even notice. Count Almaviva’s staff might misbehave with a cockiness more in tune with the second revolution of 1830, but beyond this and the period costumes (and an elaborate contraption with which the Count toys at the beginning of Act III), there is little to suggest that this is not pre-revolutionary Europe, littered with uppity servants constantly listening at their masters’ doors. A hag with mop and bucket even opens and closes the action, rejoicing in her boss’s humiliation by his valet.
Like Shakespeare, Mozart has broad enough shoulders to sustain the subtlest of time-shifts. The compliment is rewarded by a stylish if otherwise rather traditional staging, with few more surprises hidden amid Tanya McCallin’s monumental sets.
Always a deft master of stage detail, McVicar is blessed with a multi-talented cast who can mostly act as well as they can sing, primarily Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott‘s feisty Figaro, a bundle of mischievous energy who takes as many liberties with the score as with his master’s plans for this ‘crazy’ day. In her Royal Opera debut, Swedish soprano Miah Persson complements him beautifully, a Susanna as comely and sassy as pure of voice and sweet of tone, stilling an awed house with her sublime ‘Deh, vieni’.
Gerald Finley’s nobly sung Count is less physically imposing than usual, lending stronger emphasis to the dark, scheming side of his shameless nature, angry and self-righteous enough to administer a shocking slap across the face to his long-suffering wife, superbly sung by the stately, if sometimes statuesque Dorothea Roschmann.
Also new to Covent Garden, Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham makes a charmingly gamine Cherubino, perkily popping up in all the wrong places at the wrong times. The supporting cast could scarcely be stronger; Philip Langridge, Jonathan Veira and Graciela Araya all make the most of their chances as Basilio, Bartolo and Marcellina.
The inclusion of Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias makes for an overly long last act, although McVicar’s skilful use of costumes and veils brings welcome clarity to those complex events in the darkened garden. If the Countess’s final ‘perdono’ is as ravishing as ever, one is left far from convinced that she will now live happily ever after.
Himself playing continuo, conductor Antonio Pappano permits his singers to ornament their arias and gabble the recitatives, lending greater theatrical urgency to an often startlingly new musical take on this most familiar of works. It will be interesting to hear if such liberties are permitted by the veteran Mozartian Sir Colin Davis, who will bring back this production in June with a largely different cast.
The sexual politics of Mozart’s masterpiece shine dimly through a pre-Valentine’s Day love letter from British composer Mark-Antony Turnage to his fiancee, given its world premiere by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under Marin Alsop in the reborn Queen Elizabeth Hall. There was almost as much brassy turbulence as shadowy string seduction in his jazzy 10-minute Hidden Love Song, book-ended by a ticking clock as ominous as inviting.
Turnage’s elegant if slight billet-doux, an aria for soprano saxophone and chamber orchestra played with refined gusto by soloist Martin Robertson, had the misfortune to be buried in a vast, perhaps too ambitious programme of 20th-century works. It began at its best, with a revelatory reading of Eric Satie’s witty ballet, Parade, complete with siren, lottery wheel, typewriter, bottles and gunshots. No wonder this was the work that moved Guillaume Apollinaire to coin the term ‘Surrealism’.
By the time the stage had been rearranged between pieces, each introduced with a few chosen phrases and musical examples from the genial Alsop, Thomas Ades’s chamber symphony (written when he was a 19-year-old student) and poker-playing Igor Stravinsky’s Jeu de Cartes filled out a programme in themselves. But there was still James Macmillan’s Confession of Isobel Gowdie to come after the Turnage.
A packed house of LPO loyalists was thus treated to handsome value for money in rarefied repertoire giving every department of this fine orchestra the chance to parade its skills under a modern master. The Bournemouth Symphony continues to flourish under Alsop’s lively leadership, but it is our loss that it is Baltimore, rather than Britain, that has given this meticulous maestro her due place in musical history as the first female conductor of a major international orchestra.»