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Performances

Erwin Schrott as Figaro [Photo by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera]
08 Jun 2010

Le Nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera House

Detailed and precise, but never fussy, David McVicar’s thought-provoking production of Le Nozze di Figaro is ‘busy’ from the opening rushing semi-quavers of the overture.

W. A. Mozart: Le Nozze di Figaro

Figaro: Erwin Schrott; Susanna: Eri Nakamura; Count Almaviva: Mariusz Kwiecien; Countess Almaviva: Annette Dasch; Cherubino: Jurgita Adamonytė; Bartolo: Robert Lloyd; Marcellina: Marie McLaughlin; Don Basilio: Peter Hoare; Don Curzio: Christopher Gillett; Barbarina: Amanda Forsythe; Antonio: Nicholas Folwell. Conductor: Colin Davis. Director: David McVicar. Designer: Tanya McCallin. Lighting Designer: Paule Constable. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London. Friday 4th June, 2010.

Above: Erwin Schrott as Figaro

All photos by Clive Barda courtesy of The Royal Opera

 

Under the stern gaze of butlers and house-keepers, footmen and maids dart efficiently about the stage, tidying, carrying, dusting; this is a well-run household where everyone knows their place and their job. Well, almost everyone … for while the household machinery runs smoothly in the background, McVicar foregrounds the potential misery and heartache which may result from cross-class interactions of an amorous nature between servants and their imperious masters.

Upon this production’s first appearance in 2006, much was made of McVicar’s decision to ‘update’ the action to the 1830s. But this minor historical shift is neither especially remarkable nor inappropriate, for the focus here is not political conflict but human passions. And, this vision surely penetrates to the heart of this opera: for all its French Revolutionary origins, it is at essence a tale of amorous confusions and betrayals … it is in Don Giovanni (where the class divides are just as obvious, and further highlighted by contrasting musical idioms) that we hear the revolutionary cries of “Viva la liberté!”, whereas Figaro explores human emotions — love, lust, envy, treachery — as encapsulated by the Count’s words, ‘Shall I live to see a servant of mine happy and enjoying pleasure that I desire in vain?’

NOZZE-100528_0118-NAKAMURA-.gifEri Nakamura as Susanna

The spacious stage, with widened proscenium arch, comfortably accommodates Tanya McCallin’s inventive sets, which slide ingeniously to emphasise the contrast between the luxurious grace of the courtly rooms and the shabby jumble of the servants’ quarters, while also revealing the co-dependence of the two worlds. In the Act 1 Trio, ‘Cosa sento!’, when the enraged Count discovers the unfortunate page, Cherubino, hiding in Susanna’s room, servants listen avidly outside the door, relishing the commotion within. As the Count rants, rages and plans revenge in ‘Hai già vinta la causa!’, butlers and housemaids silently go about their business, diplomatically deaf to their master’s indiscreet outpourings.

McVicar is alert to every potential for realism: there are some neat contemporary references — Count Almaviva inspects some new scientific machinery at the start of Act 3, for example — and there is not an anachronism or improbability in sight. With this particular Susanna a good foot shorter than the Countess, disguise and mistaken identity become more improbable, so McVicar stands his Susanna on a box, just one example of the understated dramatic integrity of the whole.

The transitions between locations are imperceptible and creative, none more so that between Acts 3 and 4, where the imposing interior smoothly and almost indiscernibly transforms to become a nocturnal garden, beautifully and evocatively lit by Paule Constable.

The performances of the fairly young cast of principals were similarly well-matched, marked by musical accuracy and dramatic credibility. Erwin Schrott as Figaro sang with naturalism and ease: his perturbed servant is not an over-confident, boastful buffoon, but rather a man of cool intelligence and wit, who really is in control of the commotion. Although he lacks some power in the lower range, Schrott’s performance is impressive and unceasingly entertaining. There is not a wasted moment or irrelevant gesture, as when he quick-wittedly improvises a limp when his lies about leaping from the Countess’s window are almost uncovered by the Count. When the hunting fanfares trill out in ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’, Schrott waggles his cuckold’s horns, but while his horror at Susanna’s imagined infidelity seems genuine at this point, we are confident that he will manage events to his benefit; and his wry comic nuance in the ensuing denouement was superb.

NOZZE-100528_0094-ADAMONYTE.gifJurgita Adamonytė as Cherubino

In an unusually vicious interpretation, Mariusz Kwiecien was a portrait of pride and brutal petulance as Count Almaviva. This was really dramatic singing. Drawing upon a wide range of colours in his Act 3 aria, ‘Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro’, Kwiecien suggested not a petty aristrocrat’s frustration at not getting his own way, but genuine fury and ferocity. However, the surprising slap which he inflicted upon the Countess during their argument about Cherubino’s whereabouts seemed inappropriate — such nastiness and intimated cruelty is hard to reconcile with their apparently harmonious reunion at the close of the opera.

Eri Nakamura is still a Jette Parker Young Artist but she showed musical maturity, and stamina, as Susanna. Secure and poised throughout, she held her own among more her experienced colleagues. However, it was a pity that, when Da Ponte’s libretto contributes so much to the wit and irony of the opera, her Italian was almost unintelligible! Jurgita Adamonytė convincingly conveyed Cherubino’s restless energy and capacity for mischief. Her intonation was secure, her tone crisp and clear, and she shaped Mozart’s lyrical lines in ‘Voi che sapete’ with grace; but while she dashed gauchely about the stage, vocally perhaps she was a bit too elegant and controlled, not quite capturing Cherubino’s breathless excitement and urgency.

German soprano, Annette Dasch, was making her ROH debut as the Countess. Although she was a little nervous and unsteady at the start, she relaxed after a slightly strained ‘Porgi amor’, and blended sweetly with Nakamura in their Act 3 Canzonetta. However, ‘Dove sono’ was a little too pressing and tense for my liking; accompanied by wonderful woodwind playing, Dasch lacked richness at the top of her voice and in the climactic closing phrases pushed to forcefully to the top As, lacking somewhat the composure and restraint required to suggest the Countess’s deeply felt but poignant regret.

NOZZE-100528_0205-DASCH-AS-.gifAnnette Dasch as Countess Almaviva

Marie McLaughlin is an experienced Marcellina and she was clearly comfortable in the role, enjoying the on-stage business and singing with bright tone and precision — it was a pity that her Act 4 aria was cut. McLaughlin’s sense of timing was more than equalled by Robert Lloyd as Bartolo, and they made a wonderful comic pair, the latter despatching the prattling patter of ‘La vendetta’ with ease.

Peter Hoare was a suitably snide and sneering Basilio, although he might have made even more of his comic moments, such as the repetition of his line, ‘What I said about the page, it was just a suspicion …’ in ‘Cosa Sento’. Nicholas Folwell’s Antonio was convincingly furious at having his flowerbeds trampled by Cherubino, and certainly not keen on acquiring him as a son-in-law! American soprano, Amanda Forsythe, confidently delivered Barbarina’s Act 4 aria with polished style and lovely refinement, and Christopher Gillett was a very competent Don Curzio.

Just one weakness marred the otherwise superb singing: the cast, most especially during the ensembles, on occasion lagged behind the spirited pace set by Sir Colin Davis in the pit, clouding the orchestra’s sharp clarity and liveliness. The servants’ chorus which closes Act 1 was particularly marred in this way. Post-interval, after an announcement informed us that due to unforeseen circumstances Davis had had to leave the theatre, the problem continued under the baton of David Syrus, Head of Music for The Royal Opera House, who is scheduled to conduct later performances of the run. Although he did not always sustain the dramatic momentum in the final Act, with its extended sequence of arias and recitatives, Syrus built impressively towards the close in the final ensemble.

NOZZE-100528_0127--(C)CLIVE.gifPeter Hoare as Don Basilio, Eri Nakamura as Susanna and Mariusz Kwiecien as Count Almaviva

McVicar’s production will doubtless and deservedly become a Covent Garden staple. But, it needs a slightly more stellar cast if it is to really sparkle. On this occasion, as the servant’s curtsey which accompanied the closing bars implied, it was the production itself which was star of the show.

Claire Seymour

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