Le Nozze di Figaro – David McVicar Plays Safe in `Marriage of Figaro’ at Royal Opera

by Warwick Thompson (Bloomberg.com)

«David McVicar gave us bare breasts and gang rape in “Rigoletto.” In his “Tosca,” the soprano fondled a corpse with necrophiliac glee. So the buzz of speculation about his new production of Mozart’s comedy “Le nozze di Figaro” (The Marriage of Figaro) at London’s Royal Opera House was understandable.

Traditionalists needn’t have worried. McVicar’s staging is a safe show, complete with pretty frocks and realistic sets. His most significant innovation is to update the action from 1786, when the opera was written, to 1830.

Tanya McCallin’s designs show us the lofty rooms of a spacious French chateau which has seen better days. The women wear mutton-sleeve dresses with high waists, while the men appear in breeches and elegant coats. The master of the house is always well-groomed. In contrast, the rampant and rebellious pageboy Cherubino dresses in a more carefree, Byronic style.

This is the arena in which the arrogant Count Almaviva wants to seduce the fiancee of his servant Figaro. It’s also a world which McVicar stuffs with extra servants who listen at keyholes, gossip in corridors and frequently appear on the fringes of the main action.

He emphasizes the fact that Almaviva’s comfortable life depends on the labor of many, but that these minions also have their own ideas about their master. It’s a nod to the contemporary politics of the 1830s, the period of the “liberal revolution,” when the bourgeoisie attempted to curb the power of King Louis Philippe.

Fiery Figaro

McVicar doesn’t realize the power structures with enough accuracy, however. Figaro talks to Almaviva with too much fiery self-confidence, his fiancee Susanna is notably unservile with her mistress, and many of the other servants seem too ready to flout their master’s authority. The lack of deference lessens the fundamental conflict of their situation and lowers the stakes that everyone is playing for.

The context may be woolly, though the performances make up for it. Erwin Schrott (Figaro) has a thrilling, resonant voice, and Miah Persson (Susanna) floats her final aria “Deh vieni, non tardar” with exquisite beauty. They’re both also talented and lively actors. Perhaps too lively sometimes, and too anxious to fill every moment with business, but they’re sure to relax into their roles after first-night jitters are out of the way.

Drunken Cherubino

Gerald Finley is vocally and theatrically outstanding as Almaviva, and gives a fierce center to the character’s pride and arrogance. Young mezzo Rinat Shaham makes a memorable debut as the hormonally charged pageboy Cherubino. Her drunken turn in Act Four is a delight, and her deliberately awkward performance of “Voi che sapete” is charming.

Dorothea Roschmann occasionally struggles with the difficult, long phrases of Countess Almaviva, yet Antonio Pappano’s conducting is so fresh and plastic you can almost touch it.»

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