Le Nozze di Figaro – Go Figaro
by Hugh Canning (The Sunday Times)
«Just before Christmas last year, David McVicar staged Mozart’s Così fan tutte for the Opéra du Rhin in Strasbourg. It was the kind of production I had almost despaired of seeing again: beautiful, thoughtful, scrupulously faithful to the letter of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s exquisite libretto — though updated to the last quarter of the 19th century — and to the “romantic” spirit of the music.
With his strikingly austere but no less beautiful La clemenza di Tito for ENO, 2005 augured well, I thought at the time, for McVicar’s forthcoming production of Le nozze di Figaro for the Royal Opera’s 250th-anniversary celebrations. Last Tuesday night at Covent Garden, the results were more rewarding than I had dared to expect: a Figaro conscious of tradition, but in no way stale or conventional, one that, with luck and careful nurturing, will grace the Royal Opera’s repertoire for years to come.
Writing in the RO’s lavish programme book, McVicar feels the need to defend Mozart from his (preposterous) detractors, but Figaro, of all his works, has time and time again proved its durability and contemporaneity. More than any other comedy for music, it survives second-rate theatrical presentation and mediocre musical forces, and in a great performance — which this nearly was — it can seem the most perfect masterpiece ever produced for the operatic stage. In Mozart ’s birthday year, the Royal Opera rightly performs the work complete, including the usually cut Marcellina and Don Basilio arias in Act IV.
As in the case of his Strasbourg Così, McVicar and his designer, Tanya McCallin, update their Figaro, this time to an earlier part of the 19th century. In his programme thoughts, McVicar rejects the oft-quoted Napoleonic notion that the Beaumarchais play on which the opera is based shows a premonition of the storming of the Bastille in 1789 and its bloody aftermath.
Although Mozart and Da Ponte’s comedy is a social one, it is sexual politics that concern them primarily. Like Graham Vick — for ENO in 1991 — McVicar notes that the opera is about the troubled marriage of the Almavivas and their servants’ wedding. And clearly, as in his Così, McVicar is attracted by the erotic-romantic aspects of the work. “To Mozart,” he writes, “love is a democratising force.” And love (or lust) is the motor that propels the action of this unusually physical and sensual staging. McCallin’s sets are grand and adaptable, as McVicar transports the action from the grimy storeroom that is to become Figaro and Susanna’s bedroom to a plausible garden — albeit festooned, à la Vick, with furniture from the previous acts — in which the sexual-romantic tangle is unravelled.
Like Peter Hall and Jonathan Miller, McVicar pays Mozart and Da Ponte the compliment of treating their Figaro as a sung play, and it is the wonderful acting he gets from a well-balanced cast of singers that makes his staging so compelling to watch. Where so often the poignantly neglected Countess is the focus of directors’ attentions, McVicar throws the spotlight onto the central Figaro-Susanna-Count triangle, on which the drama hinges: Almaviva’s attempts to exact his droit du seigneur from the chambermaid before her wedding night is thwarted by the agile wit and resourcefulness of his servants, especially Susanna herself.
As played by the German soprano Dorothea Röschmann — an outstanding Susanna — this Countess, small and neurotic, emerges as a secondary figure, while Gerald Finley, as her wayward spouse, electrifies the stage with his magnetic presence and magnificent singing. (At the opening of Act III, he is seen ratcheting up an elaborate early dynamo.) When he slaps his wife in their Act II squabble, the effect is shocking. It would be out of character in a rococo context, but it works in the harsher era of the early Industrial Revolution. Even when played in period costume, McVicar reminds us, Figaro is about real, recognisably contemporary people and their passions.
Susanna, in the entrancingly beautiful person of the Swedish soprano Miah Persson, making an overdue first appearance, is the perfect foil. She’s not an earthy servant girl, in the Mediterranean peasant mould of Marie McLaughlin or Cecilia Bartoli. But beneath her cool, Nordic exterior beats a palpitating heart, and she crowns her lovely performance with as serene an account of Susanna’s Rose aria — the romantic kernel of the opera — as we are likely to hear today, exquisitely abetted by the flute, oboe and bassoon soloists of Antonio Pappano’s marvellous Royal Opera orchestra.
The chemistry between Finley and Persson in their Act III encounter is palpable, and it is only marginally less so between Persson and her charismatic, handsome Figaro, the Uruguayan baritone Erwin Schrott, whose manifest physical and vocal endowments are occasionally undermined by a lack of musical and histrionic discipline. There is an improvisatory feel to his performance that upsets the balance of the ensemble, but that may vanish during the long initial run. Unlike the rest of the cast, he delivers much of his recitative in a parlando style, more spoken than sung, but he gets away with it thanks to his perfect Italian. He clearly thinks he is the star of the show. On opening night, he wasn’t, but he could be by the end of the run. This is a wonderful talent, and we should see and hear more of it.
Vocally, Röschmann’s first Countess remains a sketch of what it might become. She is clearly a fine musician and an intelligent, sympathetic artist, but her erratic singing, scratchy and insecure in her tricky entrance aria, with explosive descents into the chest voice, suggest that she is overparted in a house the size of Covent Garden. She is a fine actress, however, responding with alacrity to McVicar’s direction when, for example, she registers mild outrage on hearing Figaro refer to her husband as a “Contino” (Little Count).
Innumerable “creative” directorial moments remain in the memory, such as Finley’s Count, unlike the Countess, refusing a celebratory glass at the wedding.Occasionally, McVicar teeters on the brink of caricature. Philip Langridge’s Don Basilio is a rouged Dickensian mountebank, creepily fondling Cherubino’s knees and thighs during the Act I trio. At 66, Langridge justifies the inclusion of his Act IV aria, which the squally, effortful Chilean Marcellina, Graciela Araya, does not.
The young Israeli mezzo Rinat Shaham plays an impish Cherubino, though her singing is dogged by intonation problems, while Jonathan Veira (Bartolo), Ana James (Barbarina) and Jeremy White (the Gardener) make much of little with their parts. And it was wonderful to see the veteran Francis Egerton, Don Basilio in my first Covent Garden Figaro in 1972, still very watchable as a severe, non-stammering notary.
Pappano has been sparing with his Mozart since he became the Royal Opera’s music director, but this fleet, witty Figaro left one wanting more. He cedes the baton to Colin Davis for the June/July revival, but one hopes he returns to this Figaro soon and often. With a bit of tweaking here and there, it has all the makings of a Covent Garden classic.»