Le Nozze di Figaro – Cleverness with a hole in it

by Andrew Clark (Financial Times)

«No one could possibly object. The Royal Opera’s new Figaro, directed by David McVicar, looks good and sounds good. The set-changes are breathtakingly clever. The costumes seem vaguely in period (1820s actually). The conducting is fluent, the casting strong. Everyone can go home satisfied, then, can’t they? Not really. There is a hole at the heart of this Figaro, a gaping void of ideas, a mentality that puts surface-dressing above interpretation. We get no flavour of why the work had such incendiary implications for its day, or what it might say to us now. What Covent Garden is marketing here is reproduction opera.

When you think of Mc-Vicar’s Idomeneo in Glasgow all those years ago, when he first made his name, you wonder where the simplicity has gone, why he no longer engages with the core of the material, what can have diluted an imagination that once envisioned Mozart afresh.

The stagecraft has certainly matured. McVicar fills the breadth and depth of Tanya McCallin’s ancien régime sets with consummate skill. The comedy is intelligently observed and characters establish themselves quickly. There is a large cast of extras, all meaningfully employed – not least in the overture, during which the servants open up a believably distressed Almaviva chateau at the start of what Beaumarchais called La folle journée (the crazy day).

That cycle of morning-to-night reaches its climax in a garden scene that starts with one of McCallin’s magical stage-transformations and ends with all the twists and turns believably resolved. Meanwhile the opera’s explosive brew of power politics, social politics and sexual politics lies tantalisingly beyond reach, as McVicar’s lapses of taste and style accumulate: the servants greet their master with a printed banner, the Count slaps the Countess, Susanna and Marcellina have a public scrap. A society of dissolving class divisions? Why McVicar moves the period forward 30 years to Restoration France is anyone’s guess. He is fast becomingto the 2000s what Elijah Moshinsky was in the1990s: a purveyor ofbankable, risk-free opera to the establishment.

The balance of power on stage is evenly divided between Erwin Schrott‘s Figaro and Gerald Finley’s Count. I would find it hard to imagine either role more engagingly sung. Schrott has something of the young Terfel about him – but is sexier, more elegant, with forebodings of Don Giovanni. Finley is a titanic presence and a true Mozart stylist. Miah Persson convinces us that Susanna does indeed have all the cards in her hand, while Rinat Shaham is a suitably cheeky Cherubino. Philip Langridge’s wickedly foppish Basilio earns his act four aria. The one dis-appointment is Dorothea Röschmann’s frumpish Countess.

Antonio Pappano, conducting, proves himself a winning Mozartian: there is not a single longueur and no hint of big-house Mozart. Orchestral timbres are up-to-the-minute, and Pappano himself plays the harpsichord continuo. The makings of a memorable 250th anniversary tribute are here. The eyes have it, but not the mind or the heart.»


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