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Così fan tutte at Covent Garden

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Plácido Domingo as Macbeth, LA Opera

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07 May 2014

The Marriage of Figaro, Royal Opera

“Oh! Woman! Woman! Woman!” So, cries Beaumarchais’s Figaro, in his angry, self-chastising, at times self-pitying diatribe against the injustices of ‘life’. “Oh, servants, servants, servants!” might be the Count’s complaint in David McVicar’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro, revived here for the sixth time.

W A Mozart : The Marriage of Figaro, Royal Opera House, London, 2nd May 2014

A review by Claire Seymour


They are everywhere: carrying crates, polishing panes, dusting drapes. Silent and insidious, they see all and hear all. And, they are choreographed to perfection! — although, this is perhaps not so surprising given the regularity with which McVicar’s tried-and-tested crowd-pleaser seems to have frequented the Covent Garden stage of late.

Bustling busily during the brisk overture, the stealthy staff provide an interesting contextual frame through which to view the actions and attitudes of the shifty aristocracy and their guileful underlings. We, like the servants, enjoy, collude with, and judge the capers.

And, this superb cast provide much to relish. Italian bass Alex Esposito returns to the House following his acclaimed performance as Leporello earlier in the season. Then, I noted that as Don Giovanni’s sleazy servant, Esposito demonstrated suavity and stylishness, and rued that it ‘was a shame that the production does not offer more opportunity for him to showcase his skills as a master of musical comedy and irony’. That was certainly remedied here. Esposito’s naturally exemplary diction was matched by extraordinary clear, bright projection which stamped Figaro’s character indelibly on the proceedings.

This is a Figaro whom we laugh easily with and at; he has testosterone — manfully lunging for Susanna when measuring up the marital bed — and vulnerability: the ‘cuckolded’ valet seemed genuinely hurt by his betrothed’s apparent betrayal in ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’, before angry bluster shored up his wounded pride. Esposito’s confident comic presence endows Figaro’s wit and wiles with convincing self-possession; but, he also playfully punctures the factotum’s smugness. The Finale of Act 2, as Figaro is forced to think on his feet to negotiate the onslaught from an enraged master, a truculent gardener and a pack of scheming fraudsters, wonderfully brought together gleeful triumphs and vexing setbacks.

Esposito’s weighty baritone has startling dramatic power, effortlessly ringing through the auditorium, and at times, despite the credible attraction between the soon-to-be married couple, he overpowered Camilla Tilling’s Susanna. Tilling’s graceful soprano perhaps did not fully convey Susanna’s spirited sassiness and strong nerve and nous; but, in the second Act, her sparkle blended endearingly with the Countess’s emotional edginess, suggesting a hidden fervour. And, the light radiance of her tone added a delicious dash of irony to ‘Deh vieni non tardar’, sung to the unseen and unsuspecting Figaro in Act 4, as she awaits the Count’s arrival.

Gerald Finley, returning to the role that he sang in the initial run in 2006, was an engaging Count. Sliding into the servants’ garret like an unctuous ‘lounge lizard’, Finley was haughtily self-righteous but also touchingly self-aware, knowing that the time-honoured droits were slipping inexorably from his grasp. Gun-wielding and assertive, despite the brusque slap administered to the Countess his threats of violence always seemed more designed to bolster his own wilting ego rather than a genuine menace. Finley looks good and sounds good. ‘Vedrò mentre io sospiro’ was full of vigour and vivacity, a full-bodied complaint rather than the superficial ranting of Act 2, which almost made one feel the sense of injustice was justified. And, the warm tender pleas for forgiveness in Act 4 were convincingly sincere.

Rebecca Evans’s Countess was certainly a woman in torment; her full tone was expressive of deep emotions but unfortunately the overly wide vibrato struck a ‘false note’ in a production where the delivery was characterised by cleanness, crispness and clarity. ‘Porgi amor’ was assured, though; this Countess has real dignity. And, Evans paced herself successfully, revealing musical colours to fit a variety of dramatic situations; the technical challenges of ‘Dove sono’ presented no problem, and in the latter section of the aria, a resoluteness suggested that the Count was foolish to under-estimate his wife’s determination and resources.

If there was a star moment, for me it was Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’ sung with disarming beauty by Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus. If ‘No sò più’ had trembled with pulsing palpitations — Cherubino’s overflowing romantic energies sending him into a whirl of hyper-activity — then, after some preparatory , self-motivating arm-swinging and air-pumping, the page’s well-rehearsed offering of love was a moving embodiment of serene, self-possessed devotion — a foreshadowing of the captivating chevalier that the gauche Cherubino will become.

The smaller roles are all well executed. Marie McLaughlin’s Marcellina is a formidable force to be reckoned with; she makes the role seem dramatically more central than is often the case. The restless fan-fluttering of Don Basilio (Guy de Mey) is indicative of the falsity and hypocrisy of the slimy singing master, and the vocal nuances and timing are well-judged. Don Curzio (Timothy Robinson) and Antonio (Jeremy White) fit neatly into their roles; Jette Parker Young Artist, Serbian soprano Dušica Bijelić sings Barbarina’s aria with wonderful musical character.

In contrast to John Eliot Gardiner (conducting the last revival in September 2013) whose determinedly expeditious tempi at times pushed his singers to the brink, David Syrus was sympathetic to his soloists — perhaps a bit too much so at times, for both Bartolo’s patter (Greek bass Christophoros Stamboglis) and Cherubino’s breathless shudders seemed inclined to push ahead of the baton. Occasionally the ensembles were a little ragged, the Finale of Act 2 disappointingly so, for Syrus’s relaxed tempi were at odds with the innate forward momentum of Da Ponte’s meticulously crafted form with its ‘strepitoso, [the] arcistrepitoso, [the] strepitossossimo, with which last every act commonly ends’. Things may settle down for later performances in the run. But, there were some striking orchestral commentaries: the trumpet’s leaping arpeggio fanfares flashed brightly at the close of Act 1, and the contrast with the deliciously long-breathed, silky clarinet and bassoon coils which introduce the Countess in Act 2 emphasised the shift to a private world far removed from the public posing and posturing of the previous act. The continuo was tasteful and discreet, enriched by some very eloquent cello playing in the accompanied recitatives.

Tanya McCallin’s sumptuous sets retain their sheen — the servants’ sedulous scrubbing and sponging is clearly up to the mark — and Paule Constable’s lighting continues to beguile, most especially in the evocative transformation from Act 3’s imposing interiors to the evocative nocturnal garden of the final act. This is a real company success, all parts contributing equally to a pleasing whole.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Figaro, Alex Esposito; Susanna, Camilla Tilling; Counte Almaviva, Gerlad Finley; Countess Almaviva, Rebecca Evans; Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus; Bartolo, Christophoros Stamboglis; Marcellina, Marie McLaughlin; Don Basilio, Guy de Mey; Antonio, Jeremy White; Don Curzio, Timothy Robonson; Barbarina, Dušica Bijelić; First Bridesmaid, Melissa Alder; Second Bridesmaid, Louise Armit; Director, David McVicar; Revival Director, Bárbara Lluch; Conductor, David Syrus; Designs, Tanya McCallin; Lighting Design, Paule Constable; Movement Director, Leah Hausman; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus. Royal Opera House, Covent Garden,Friday 2nd May 2014.

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