Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro

by Dominic McHugh (MusicalCriticism.com)

A young cast headed by Erwin Schrott came together for this second revival of David McVicar’s production of Le nozze di Figaro at Covent Garden. And while the vocal elements aren’t of the highest quality, the feeling of ensemble and the imagination of the direction make for a highly entertaining evening at the opera.

Much has been made of the revolutionary aspects of McVicar’s staging, which updates the text to 1830. Certainly, reference is made to this in the costumes and in the sets, and there are some nice touches such as the scientific equipment the Count is playing with in Act 3. There’s also a general feeling of the Almaviva chateau beginning to sag at the edges, which is a representation of the working classes starting to take over and the privileged classes losing power (after all, the Count relinquishes his droit de seigneur as a sign of being a reformed, enlightened master).

But in truth, the production’s real strength is its wit. Few stagings in the Royal Opera’s current repertory are directed with so much detail in terms of the physical acting of the singers. Indeed, it’s so well observed, so fluent, that it feels more like musical theatre or a top-notch production of a play than an opera production. From the start of the overture, there’s lots going on, with the servants crossing the stage and mopping the floor and having an argument. Figaro and Susanna’s bedroom is realistically gloomy, and Figaro’s measurement of the bed in the opening duet actually seems well-motivated for once.

Indeed, there’s so much poignant humour in this production that one wonders why McVicar doesn’t tackle more comedy. It’s charming without being gooey, as well as being so thoughtful as to finally bring Da Ponte the attention he deserves; this is, after all, one of opera’s finest libretti. Men and women, servants and masters, indoors and outdoors: the piece presents a series of contrasts, the most effective of which is perhaps the move to the garden in the final act – here performed with aching beauty – so that all the characters can bring their problems ‘out into the open’.

Credit for the evening’s success is also due to Tanya McCallin’s designs – her finest work by far, in my opinion – which have a cinematic fluidity to them. The transitions from Act 1 to 2 and Act 3 to 4 are smoothly done and propel us through the evening elegantly. Her costumes are also truly beautiful, too, be it the Countess’s distinguished garb for the final scene or the servants’ green uniforms.

The whole cast throws itself into the evening without reservation, and it’s impossible to resist its charms. Nevertheless, the vocal casting was less than ideal. German soprano Annette Dasch makes heavy weather of the Countess’s music, really pushing to hit the A flat in ‘Porgi amor’, for instance, and her Italian diction is indistinct. The fine young mezzo Jurgita Adamonytė, whom I’ve previously admired, suffered some inaccurate tuning here in ‘Non so più’ and didn’t quite come into her own in ‘Voi che sapete’, although she is extremely believably as the teenage boy, Cherubino.

It was a pretty spectacular night for Eri Nakamura, the Jette Parker Young Artist who has taken over the entire run as Susanna. She was poised and endearingly cute throughout, and more than held her own against her more experienced colleagues. She also sang with impressive security and style. However, for my taste her voice lacks the sweetness and creaminess that a young Susanna should have, and she was also a little unconvincing as Figaro’s wife.

That was in no way the fault of Erwin Schrott, whose Figaro was by far the most rounded portrayal of the evening. Every movement, note and gesture was meaningful, whether his aria of horror in the final act upon mistakenly believing he has been betrayed or his humorous line in the second act when he pretends to have hurt his foot when supposedly jumping from the Countess’s window. There was an elegance in Schrott’s singing that I had not heard before (funnily enough, it was matched by his newly-groomed, closely-clipped hair), and even if he lacks the strength in the bottom notes, this is still very much his show.

The loudest cheers of the night were awarded to Mariusz Kwiecien’s Count after his third-act aria, but to my mind his voice is a little lightweight, even in this music, and he’s not dangerous enough (no match for Keenlyside or Finley in the role). I was, however, delighted by Marie McLaughlin’s witty Marcellina and Robert Lloyd’s ever-amusing Bartolo. Fair praise, too, to Amanda Forsythe’s enchanting Barbarina.

It’s not the best cast the world has to offer for Figaro, but they couldn’t go far wrong with Sir Colin Davis in the pit. Though there were some moments where singers and orchestra couldn’t quite keep up with his beat – such as in the servants’ chorus in Act 1 – the majority of the evening featured some of the most beautiful playing we’ve heard all season from the orchestra. In particular, the tenderness of the final act, elegiacally lit by Paule Constable, was a real pleasure. At the last, Figaro fans will surely not be disappointed.

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