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Libretto of Le Nozze di Figaro, Prague 1786 [Image courtesy of Wikipedia]
07 Jul 2011

The Marriage of Figaro, Opera Holland Park

Even before a note was sounded at Opera Holland Park on Saturday evening, the still summer evening was ruffled by a breeze of unease.

W. A. Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro

Figaro: Matthew Hargreaves; Susanna: Jane Harrington; Count Almaviva: George von Bergen; Countess Almaviva: Elizabeth Llewellyn; Cherubino: Hannah Pedley; Dr Bartolo: Lynton Black; Marcellina: Sarah Pring; Don Basilio/Don Curzio: Andrew Glover; Antonio: Henry Grant Kerswell; Barbarina: Jaimee Marshall. Conductor: Matthew Willis. Director: Liam Steel. Designer: Emma Wee. Lighting Designer: Colin Grenfell. Opera Holland Park, Saturday 2nd July 2011.

Above: Libretto of Le Nozze di Figaro, Prague 1786 [Image courtesy of Wikipedia]


Producer James Clutton took to the stage to announce that the original Susanna, Claire Meghnagi, had “left the production” and been replaced at short notice by Jane Harrington. In addition, Matthew Hargreaves, our elegantly attired factotum for the evening was not feeling on top form, but would soldier on regardless.

To paraphrase Lady Bracknell, “to lose one principal may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose two looks like carelessness”. In the event, if Hargreaves was suffering it did not affect him too greatly; there were a few problems with projection initially — he was rather tentative in the opening duets — but he quickly warmed up and by ‘Se Vuol Ballare’ was well into his stride (although conductor Matthew Willis nearly knocked him off-balance with some unexpected and inexplicable changes of tempo). If Hargreaves fudged a few of his notes at the top, it did not detract from a committed and lively performance. His camp, mincing, Jeeves-like antics were energetic and eye-catching, and he demonstrated a good sense of timing in what is an intricately choreographed production.

As for Harrington, she slipped effortlessly into the comic capers and complicated stage manoeuvres; she clearly knows this opera well, but if she really had had only a few days of rehearsal, she must have a remarkable stage memory. Her Susanna exuded brio, confidence and charm. Her Act 3 duet with the Countess ‘Sull’ aria’ was exquisitely sweet and clear. Indeed, the vocal expressivity of Elizabeth Llewellyn, as the disillusioned, disheartened Countess, was one of the highlights of the evening. Both ‘Porgi amor’ and ‘Dove sono’ powerfully conveyed her distress and established her aristocratic dignity. However, Llewellyn and her philandering Count, George von Bergen, (equally strong vocally, his dark registers booming out to suggest menace) are not the most convincing of actors and in a production that often found them at the front of the stage, statically facing the audience, they didn’t always make dramatic impact.

And, herein lies much of the problem with this production. For Liam Steel frequently neglects to direct the principals while involving the chorus in ceaseless hectic, and often distracting, activity. During the overture, the hustle and bustle of the upstairs/downstairs world was captured by a seething mass of servile retainers who rushed about the stage, plumping cushions, airing linen, carrying silverware (a debt, conscious or otherwise, to David McVicar’s ROH production?), and charging helter-skelter in and out of the numerous doors which extended in sharp perspective from the arched walls of Holland Park House (Emma Wee’s graceful set, cleverly calling the walls of the house into action). Such frenetic commotion on stage was not matched in the pit where, here and throughout the performance, rhythmic drive and forward momentum — so essential to the comic impetus — were sadly lacking. In general, Willis adopted an overly lyrical approach, eschewing the brisk crispness of the Classical idiom; occasional exaggerated dynamic contrasts and clumsy accelerations of pace could not inject the necessary joie de vivre.

Figaro-OHP.gifScene from The Marriage of Figaro [Photo by Fritz Curzon]

There were some deft theatrical touches — Cherubino’s leap through the chamber window into the geranium beds, for example, was neatly and wryly effected — but on the whole there was too much clutter and fussy choreography, which frequently hindered the singers’ attempts to establish character and dramatic situation through the music itself. Thus, Lynton Black struggled to convince us of Dr Bartolo’s vicious anger in the vengeful ‘La vendetta’, as the chorus farcically waved red books to and fro in the background; in case we were uncertain that Antonio (Henry Grant Kersell) is a gardener, his arrival in search of the destroyer of his precious flowerbeds was accompanied by a chorus of dancing geranium pots. When they weren’t parading picture frames or pirouetting around the furniture, the chorus were placing ‘legless’ furniture beneath the derrieres of their distressed masters and mistresses. The music was simply never allowed to speak for itself. Thus, even Cherubino’s gauche outpouring of adolescent passion, ‘Voi che sapete’, sung with bright clarity by a perky Hannah Pedley, was ‘illustrated’ by some mimed shenanigans by the four principals, subsequently imitated in a choreographed coda by a lower class quartet.

Although this chaotic stage business might have resembled a bedroom farce, the fact is that it simply wasn’t funny. The unpoetic banalities of the ‘re-written libretto’ (I hesitate to use the word ‘translation’) did not help; the surtitles not only lacked the grace of Da Ponte’s witty couplets, but frequently had only a tenuous relationship to the events and dialogue that the original libretto describes. Thus, despite some fine singing, hyperactivity on stage contrasted with lethargy in the pit, and as darkness fell, what is a long opera began to feel like a languorous one; one of the finest musical comedies reduced to dramatic inertia.

Claire Seymour

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