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29 Nov 2010
Le nozze di Figaro, Opera Australia
Neil Armfield’s insightful staging of Le nozze di Figaro is making a welcome return in the lead-up to his direction of the Ring Cycle for the Wagner bi-centenary 2013 (the first complete cycle staged in Melbourne in a century).
Armfield’s view of late eighteenth century life in Spain is a dark
one. The Almaviva household is held in the same disdain as the then monarch
Carlos IV and his dysfunctional family. Goya inspires Dale Ferguson’s
costumes; Countess Almaviva in particular, in oyster satin (and thanks to
Rachelle Durkin’s supermodel physique and bearing) has the devastating
allure of Goya’s beloved Duchess of Alba. Goya even makes an appearance
in act three to ‘photograph’ Figaro’s nuptials and, just as
he did in his portrait of the Royal Family, captures a household in sexual,
social and political turmoil.
Fergusson’s sets feature deliberate anachronisms that, to my eyes,
show the contemptible attitude of the Almaviva’s to their staff. A
shabby, vinyl reclining armchair dominates act one for Cherubino then the Count
to hide behind or in. It’s the sort of out-of-date furniture that would
normally be dumped but here is given to the servants to furnish their quarters.
For the wedding celebrations the Count provides a battered tea urn and
I prefer a deeper voiced Figaro contrasting the lighter voiced Count as
here. With that gruff edge to his voice Teddy Tahu Rhodes exemplifies the
peasant against the more refined voice of Peter Coleman-Wright’s
aristocrat. In “Se vuol ballare” he embellishes the repeated theme.
The result is a little ungainly but in terms of characterisation the growl
works splendidly. Even better in “Non più andrai” he directs the
second verse to the Count, seated smugly in the recliner chair, and, towering
over the trembling Count, warns him his days of philandering are over too and
reminding us how revolutionary this opera (and the play it derives from) was
feared to be. Armfield fills the opera with insights like these and the
principal singers — especially Coleman-Wright, Rhodes, Durkin and Tiffany
Speight — integrate them into their performances with easy assurance.
Tall and sleek Durkin’s arms glide naturally into gestures both
graceful and, at appropriate times, erotic. When, in act two, the Count tries
to force her away from the door to force open the closet where Cherubino hides,
he at first violently lays his gloved hands on her only to let them roam over
her breasts and body making the sexual connection still existing between the
two — despite their current marital problems — alarmingly obvious.
Durkin’s response to this rare moment of contact with her faithless
husband, melting at his touch, is simultaneously elegant and erotic. Erotic
obsession is the basis of this opera after all and this insight into that
eroticism created a frisson. The Countess’s attraction to Cherubino was
insightfully played up too; the Countess wilting to his act two serenade like
Gomez used to when Morticia spoke French.
Speight’s voice grows in size and stature with each appearance.
Speight also has charming way with and special claim on Mozartian maids. Sian
Pendry bravely displays the rampaging teenage sexuality of Cherubino behaving
at times like a spaniel in heat! She neatly negotiates the rapid pace set for
“Non so piu” beautifully enunciating the words as do he rest of the
The secondary characters weave through the story with only occasional
success. Elizabeth Campbell’s Marcellina is another character caught in a
precarious situation. Her frustrations run deeper than mere anxiety over her
age. Her favour with Count Almaviva, depends on her winning her case against
Figaro. In Campbell’s hands there is that sense Marcellina is greatly
relieved when she finds Figaro is her son and she can escape to bourgeoisie
security as Bartolo’s wife. When Armfield’s production was first
staged Don Basilio’s and Marcellina’s arias were cut. They were
restored for the revival in Sydney, although Marcellina’s is excised for
this Melbourne season. The tenor Robert Tear specialises in singing Basilio and
devotes an entire essay to him in his book Singer Beware offering an
illuminating analysis into “the quality of thought which might invest a
small part with a fresh interest and, at the same time, probably alter the
usual balance of the opera. “If the aria, is cut,” he writes,
“the character becomes extremely hard to play simply because the chance
of explaining his character to the audience is taken away, all the earlier
behaviour seeming merely eccentric or stupid.” Basilio is a man of great
intelligence, according to Tear, “more intelligent than anyone else in
the Almaviva household” the seemingly bizarre aria “In quelli anni
cui dal poco” is making a point about this
“musician/thinker’s position in a philistine aristocratic house of
the period.” While the near-revolutionary sentiments of Figaro’s
are extrovertly apparent in Armfield’s clever twist in “Non più
andrai”, there could have been similar possibilities with Basilio’s
aria explaining his philosophy and how it helped him survive the
“fooleries of class and politics” surrounding him. Conductor Marko
Letonja actually highlights the ascending horn passages at the end of
Balisio’s aria so they ring out with a confidence worthy of Beethoven and
suggest maybe the triumphant Basilio is another plebeian hero. Kanen Breen
plays Basilio primarily for laughs and by the time the aria arrives the
character has become a rococo incarnation of Kenneth Williams. It’s an
assured performance however; the character slithers around with decreasing fear
of his betters.
There is a touch of early music practice from the orchestra; fortepiano
replacing the usual harpsichord and the strings adopting that occasionally
‘wiry’ sound associated with early music practice. Acts one and two
work the best in this current revival, the sexual and social strain made
delightfully relevant by director and cast.