18 Sep 2013

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera House

Although this is their fifth outing, Tanya McCallin’s sets for David McVicar’s Le Nozze di Figaro remain a sumptuous feast for the eyes.

The polished floor, scrubbed so assiduously by the long-suffering servant upon whom the curtain rises, gleams and glistens — despite the heavy footfall of domestics bustling about their business under the watchful gaze of an imperious housekeeper. The chandeliers glint and sparkle, under Paule Constable’s beautiful lighting; there are some breath-taking moments such as the twilight transition between the final two Acts, as the interior of the chateau imperceptibly metamorphoses into an enchanted nocturnal garden. Costumes are similarly eye-catching and visually there is scarcely an anachronistic note — indeed, McCallin could probably teach the producers of Downton Abbey a thing or two about period detail.

It’s a shame, then, that the shine seems to have been wiped off the drama itself, for this was a rather lacklustre and untidy performance of an opera which should fizz and glide along effortlessly.

Things got off to a messy start, with both Luca Pisaroni (Figaro) and Lucy Crowe (Susanna) uncomfortably behind Sir John Eliot Gardiner’s beat in the opening numbers. Also, while both are experienced in their respective roles, there was a lack of frisson between them and they didn’t make for a convincing pair of nearly-weds. One might have put the hitches at the start down to first-night jitters, but matters didn’t really improve and the general ensemble and cohesion between stage and pit were ragged throughout the evening — Eliot Gardiner did not seem inclined to wait for his singers.

The absence of dramatic spark was a pervasive weakness — and a real problem in an opera dominated by action-packed ensembles. Although the servants buzzed about frenetically, the principals often seemed rather listless and lacking in dramatic authority. McCallin’s slickly sliding sets juxtapose the elegant luxury of the aristocrats’ chambers with the threadbare sparseness of the servants’ garrets, and these crossing interfaces reveal the co-dependence of the two worlds, for the opera is all about interaction — between the classes and the genders. Here, however, the intersecting dramatic threads were only loosely woven.

Pisaroni was a tall, handsome Figaro; he has a weighty voice across the range, a glossy tone, a pleasing legato and a relaxed delivery. However, while ‘Se vuol ballare’ was injected with real anger and indignation, in general the sound was rather uniform; more variety would have better conveyed the crafty quick-wittedness of the ever-resourceful valet.

Lucy Crowe matched her fiancé for fury and ferocity in Act 1; not afraid to act with her voice, she was vivacious in the recitatives. Perhaps she sometimes erred too far on the side of feistiness; in later Acts she allowed the fun and ingenuity of the guileful servant to rise to the fore, and as a consequence her voice took on a softer more charming hue. Although Crowe strayed a little sharp in the closing passages of the Act 2 Finale, her last-act serenade was poised and pure.

Christopher Maltman’s Count Almaviva is a thoroughly unpleasant autocrat, conscious of his power and not reticent in using it to intimidate his wife and servants alike. Maltman snarled through some of the Count’s more aggressive moments; his Act 3 vengeance aria was particularly coarse. But, though the Count may be a selfish cad and a bullying egoist, surely he must have some charm too — otherwise, why would the Countess forgive him?

Swedish soprano Maria Bengtsson seemed somewhat nervous at the start of ‘Porgi amor’ — the first lines of the aria were noticeably lacking in consonants; perhaps she felt overly exposed by the light, crisp textures conjured by Eliot Gardiner. She did warm up vocally though and by the end of Act 2 found a richer, fuller sound; ‘Dove sono’ was characterised by a joyful glow, especially at the top, and Bengtsson demonstrated a tender, alluring piano. But, dramatically she remained slightly diffident which diminished the impact of the recitatives, most noticeably in the marvellously convoluted Finale to Act 2.

Renata Pokupić was credibly pubescent in mannerism, but her Cherubino coped surprisingly coolly with the trials and tribulations of love — where was the teenage torment, the agony of pubescent passion? Pokupić, too, began a little hesitantly in ‘Non so più’, but she subsequently revealed a well-shaped, sweet-toned mezzo lyricism and ‘Voi che sapete’ deserved its warm applause.

Helene Schneiderman gave a superb performance as Marcellina, striking just the right balance between comedy and caricature, and between malice — spitefully kicking over Susanna’s basket of clean washing —and mischief, playfully cavorting with Bartolo on Figaro’s bed.

Carlos Chausson made heavy work of Bartolo’s ‘La vendetta’, which was somewhat ponderous and humourless — if you can hear the individual words in the patter, it’s too slow. As the oleaginous music-master, Don Basilio, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt sang with an apt dash of derision but did not make the most of the opportunities for preening narcissism. Alasdair Elliott and Lynton Black were solid as Don Curzio and Antonio respectively. Mary Bevan, making her Royal Opera House debut, was a fine, technically assured Barbarina.

Things crackled along in the pit, with Eliot Gardiner keeping the tempos brisk and the textures crisp, but even this couldn’t overcome the muting effect of — excepting the aggression of Maltman’s brutal Count — the low-key dramatic interplay on stage. This revival comes just eighteenth months since the last staging in spring 2012; and the production will be seen again in May next year. Given that there were a fair number of empty seats at this opening night, one wonders whether this Figaro needs a bit of a rest, in order to revive its comic energy and effervescence.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Figaro, Luca Pisaroni; Susanna, Lucy Crowe; Cherubino, Renata Pokupić; Count Almaviva, Christopher Maltman; Countess Almaviva, Maria Bengtsson; Bartolo, Carlos Chausson; Marcellina, Helene Schneiderman; Don Basilio, Jean-Paul Fouchécourt; Don Curzio, Alasdair Elliott, Antonio; Lynton Black; Barbarina, Mary Bevan; David McVicar, director; Tanya McCallin, designer; Paule Constable, lighting designer; Leah Hausman, movement director; John Eliot Gardiner, conductor; Royal Opera House Chorus; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, Monday 16th September 2013.