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Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Laura Tatulescu as Susanna [Photo by Robert Workman courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival]
09 Jun 2013

Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne

What a pity! On a glorious — well, by recent English standards — summer’s day, there can be few more beautiful English countryside settings than Glyndebourne, with the added bonus, as alas much of the audience appears to understand it, of an opera house attached.

Le nozze di Figaro, Glyndebourne

A review by Mark Berry

Above: Adam Plachetka as Figaro and Laura Tatulescu as Susanna

Photos by Robert Workman courtesy of Glyndebourne Festival


Still, they had clearly made the most of their interval picnicking, about which a little more anon. To see The Marriage of Figaro, the first opera staged at Glyndebourne, and the first staged at the new house too (preserved on a wonderful DVD, with Bernard Haitink as conductor) ought to have been the icing on the cake. Of course, it ought to have been the other way round, Mozart and Da Ponte coming first, but Michael Grandage and his revival director, Ian Rutherford had no intention of permitting that to happen. (As shorthand, I shall refer to Grandage, but it may be that Rutherford modified an initial conception to a considerable degree. The curious may consult a DVD from last year now available; I do not think I can bear to see it.)

For no apparent reason, the action is shunted into the 1970s, the decade, which, everyone seems to agree, taste forgot, whatever its virtues may have been. It seems a peculiar substitute for the eighteenth-century. No attempt seems to have been made either coherently to re-imagine the action — the intricate comedy based upon a society of orders, let alone the droit de seigneur is, as much as possible, simply ignored — or boldly to present something new. For the former, Jean-Pierre Ponnelle remains a magical DVD bet, aided by Karl Böhm, the Vienna Philharmonic, and a cast, headed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Kiri Te Kanawa, Hermann Prey, and Mirella Freni, for which the phrase ‘to die for’ might have been made. (The aforementioned Glyndebourne production, directed by Stephen Medcalf, has a fair share of magic too.) Claus Guth’s superlative Strindbergian retelling from Salzburg heads the other camp; it should not work, but it really, really does.

Chez Grandage, at best what we have is a pointless updating, with nothing to say either about Figaro or about the 1970s. Much of the time, however, the situation is far worse; this most perfect of operas — give or take a Così — is treated as fodder for a variety of slapstick at which even the lowest common denominator might cavil. With a few design hints of the original Spain — it seems no more specific than that — what we see resembles a particularly un-amusing episode of the little-lamented British sitcom, Duty Free. The Overture endures the arrival of the Count and Countess in a sports car — presumably, because the budget can. Hideous outfits, sometimes with a vague ‘Spanish’ air, sometimes not, come and go. No context is suggested for the coexistence in a villa-like location of alternatingly strange and uncharacterised people. Even an ill-behaved audience thought it beneath itself to laugh — perhaps the sitcom custom of ‘canned laughter’ should have been adopted — at Susanna reacting to Cherubino’s malodorous socks. The nadir, however, was reached when, at the end of the third act, quite deaf to Mozart’s score, some of the most embarrassing disco dancing I have ever witnessed — and even if ‘embarrassing’ were the point, that does not excuse it — was foisted upon the work. As if that were not enough, some sections of the audience started clapping along, albeit with a disturbing lack of rhythm. We seemed to have moved from Duty Free to Hi-de-Hi! (For those innocent of the ‘heyday’ of the British sitcom, Youtube may well have clips; I should recommend spending the time with Ponnelle and Böhm instead.) It was well-nigh impossible to hear the orchestra for such loutish behaviour: doubtless encouraged by the staging, but nevertheless the responsibility of the perpetrators.

And, just to make things even worse, the surtitles alternated between the embarrassingly demotic (Susanna again, being compelled to comment approvingly on Cherubino’s ‘moves’); the absent (far too much of the recitative); and the often wildly inaccurate (why a ‘signature’ for the army officer’s seal?) Whoever is responsible needs to address the problem, since it is not an exception; the titles for Ariadne auf Naxos made almost as much a mess of Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s exquisite text. It is a problem that can readily be corrected, and certainly ought to be.

Musically, things were better, though far from what we all know Figaro can be, whether from great recorded performances or memories in the theatre. To be fair, the production did its best to overshadow the music, so there was little scope for outstanding assumptions of almost any role. Adam Plachetka seemed a little neutral as Figaro to start with, but warmed up; Laura Tatulescu, whom I admired in ENO’s Castor et Pollux, similarly as Susanna, in a lively performance. Much the same could be said of the Almavivas. Joshua Hopkins offering genuine rage without bluster in his third-act aria, and Amanda Majeski sang well enough, if not quite in style: either a little bland, or a little tremulous. Lydia Teuscher’s Cherubino was fine as far as it went, but was not helped by certain tempo choices and suffered somewhat from a lack of tonal richness; it was difficult to believe in her as a boy. I should not, however, be surprised if performances improved considerably during the run; they often do, and there was in any case nothing really to complain about here. In this context, it was perhaps unsurprising that the stock buffo characters came off best, Anne Mason’s Marcellina and Luciano Di Pasquale’s Bartolo particularly noteworthy.

figaro-jun13-245.pngLydia Teuscher as Cherubino and Sara Lian Owen as Barbarina

Jérémie Rhorer’s conducting of the London Philharmonic Orchestra had its moments, but they were moments. There was little sense of Mozart’s tonal architecture, so crucial to delineating the drama; moreover there were a good few perverse choices of tempo, whether considered in themselves or in context. I do not think I have heard ‘Non più andrai’ taken either so lightly or so quickly; it is certainly not an experience I wish to repeat. Another problem, in some ways still more serious, was of general listlessness, the music swimming along somewhat aimlessly; it often seemed genuinely uncertain whether this were what Rhorer had insisted upon, or whether it were what he had fallen into. A related issue was that of far too many cases in which stage and pit fell apart. The odd instance might be ascribed to a singer, but not a persistent problem. When it was permitted to do so, the LPO played with spirit and with warmth, provided one could take the rasping of natural trumpets (though not horns). How one longed, though, for this fine orchestra, with so splendid a pedigree in Mozart, to be reunited with the likes of Haitink. One longed still more, of course, for a staging that began to do justice to the work.

This is a co-production with Houston and the Met. It will be interesting, to say the least, to see how it goes down across the Atlantic.

Mark Berry

Cast and production information:

Figaro: Adam Plachetka; Susanna: Laura Tatulescu; Bartolo: Luciano Di Pasquale; Marcellina: Anne Mason; Cherubino: Lydia Teuscher; Don Basilio: Timothy Robinson; Countess Almaviva: Amanda Majeski; Count Almaviva: Joshua Hopkins; Antonio: Nicholas Folwell; Don Curzio: Alasdair Elliott; Barbarina: Sara Lian Owen; First Bridesmaid: Charlotte Beament; Second Bridesmaid: Annie Fredericksson. Director: Michael Grandage; Revival Director: Ian Rutherford; Lighting: Paule Constable; Movement: Ben Wright. Glyndebourne Chorus (chorus master: Jeremy Bines); London Philharmonic Orchestra/Jérémie Rhorer (conductor). Glyndebourne Opera House, Saturday 8 June 2013.

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