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Reviews

<em>Le nozze di Figaro</em>, Garsington Opera
03 Jun 2017

"Recreated" Figaro at Garsington delights

After the preceding evening’s presentation of Annilese Miskimmon’s sparkling production of Handel’s Semele - an account of marital infidelity in immortal realms - the second opera of Garsington Opera’s 2017 season brought us down to earth for more mundane disloyalties and deceptions amongst the moneyed aristocracy of the eighteenth-century, as presented by John Cox in his 2005 production of Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro.

Le nozze di Figaro, Garsington Opera

A review by Claire Seymour

Above: Joshua Bloom (Figaro), Jennifer France (Susanna)

Photo credit: Mark Douet

 

This production was the last production performed at Garsington Manor, in 2010, before the company’s move to Wormsley; and, in conversation recently, Garsington’s Artistic Director, Dougie Boyd - who conducted on that occasion and under whose baton the production returns to the Garsington stage - told me that the wider stage and improved technical facilities had led to changes to design and staging which encouraged Garsington to describe this as a ‘recreation’ rather than a revival. I had not seen Cox’s vision in its previous manifestation, but I found the nestled layers of Robert Perdziola’s design to be a brilliant conceit.

The shabby garret room bestowed by Count Almaviva on the soon-to-be wed Figaro and Susanna, settles into the angled corner of the Countess’s soft-silk boudoir, which itself sits snug in the walls of the Count’s portrait-lined study. Surrounding all is the garden: the pines, topiary hedges, shrubbery and terraces. Beyond that, of course, are the gardens of Wormsley, and Cox made good use of the location: not only did the one-day time scale of Figaro perfectly mirror the real-time progression to dusk and darkness, but when Cherubino leapt from the Countess’s window to evade the Count’s wrath, we witnessed his somersault over the balcony and subsequent helter-skelter dash through the Garsington grounds, towards the lake, with disgruntled, inebriate gardener, Antonio, in hot pursuit.

And, so, the trajectory of Shakespeare’s Othello - which moves from the streets of Venice to distant Cyprus, to ever more enclosed settings culminating in the private chamber where Desdemona meets her death at the hands of her jealous, duped husband - is reversed in Figaro , which progresses from inner rooms, first private then of state, to external nooks and crannies of intrigue and deception. And, this is emphasised by Cox’s staging and Perdziola’s set, in which, paradoxically, the rings of the onion are peeled away, thus taking us ever further from the domestic interior.

The individual spaces were each well utilised, too. Though Figaro’s attic bedchamber was somewhat cramped, crowded with upturned boxes and bed-frames, a step ladder at the rear enabled supernumeraries and principals alike to climb up, creating an impression of space and an opportunity to project. The vista widened for the Countess’s boudoir, with the towering window and terrace beyond further extending the stage-scope stage-left, and the swivelling periaktoi stage-right exposing the Countess’s closet for our delectation when first Cherubino and then Susanna were therein concealed. Into the Count’s study trouped Marcellina, Bartolo and various notaries and maid-servants during Act 3, bringing the outside world to the Count’s private domain. And, in Act 4, the expanse of the Garsington stage created a credible garden milieu, with all its nooks, crannies and caves which facilitate the domestic intrigue.

The production also showcased Garsington’s values and ethos, with several significant roles filled by returnees and those who had planted the roots of their careers in Garsington’s figurative musical gardens. This was baritone Joshua Bloom’s fourth season at Garsington; he made his debut here in La Cenerentola in 2009, and sang Leporello in the 2012 Don Giovanni. Here, he was a wonderfully controlled and methodically crafted Figaro, his huge vocal capacity never once overwhelming his musical intellect. When challenging the Count’s proprietorial assumptions, Bloom’s voice was indignantly resonant; but when, in Act 4, Figaro believed himself duped and betrayed, Figaro was endowed with a credible vulnerability, which tempered Bloom’s sturdy baritone. Bloom has presence, panache and vocal power: a winning triplet.

Soprano Jennifer France is returning to Garsington following her role debut as Marzelline in Fidelio in 2014 (when Bloom was Don Fernandez) for which she was awarded the prestigious Leonard Ingrams Foundation Award for outstanding young artists. ‘Outstanding’ is certainly an adjective I would use to describe her Susanna on this occasion. This Susanna is a feisty lass - verbally and physically - not beholden or subordinate to husband, mistress or master; but, her fierce will and self-belief never once temper the sweetness of her vocal utterances. France’s soprano is lithe, clean and her stamina unflagging; she was as bright and brisk in the final Act as in the first. She is also a consummate actress, adaptable, relaxed and vivacious. A star in the making.

Jennifer France (Susanna) credit Mark Douet.jpg Jennifer France (Susanna). Photo credit: Mark Douet.

Some of the cast were new to Garsington. And, Duncan Rock’s Count was an interesting proposition. Cox and Rock dispense with vulgar aristocratic assumption, and with buffoonery, and present a Count who is thoughtful and, at times, acute and subtle, but whose duping is thus doubly effective and prompts sympathy alongside gleeful comeuppance. There was the usual incredulity and confusion, but also a genuine wish to understand how it has come about his servants are running rings around him, and a, perhaps, justified disgruntlement at his dependents’ independent willfulness. Rock balanced aristocratic presumption with human susceptibility.

I wasn’t entirely convinced by Canadian soprano Kirsten MacKinnon’s Countess. She certainly looked the part - beautiful, stately - and MacKinnon has a bristling richness at the top. But, ‘Porgi amor’ was somewhat hesitant, and she struggled to control and shape her vibrato; while first Act nerves might have been understandable, MacKinnon also seemed to rush through the phrases of ‘Dove sono’ and wandered off-pitch. There were a few rough edges too; there are places where glitzy dazzle is no compensation for lack of dulcet sweetness. That said, she made a positive contribution to the ensembles and her Act 3 duets with Susanna were a delectable intertwining.

Duncan Rock (Count), Stephen Richardson (Bartolo), Janis Kelly (Marcellina),Timothy Robinson (Basilio), Jennifer France (Susanna), Joshua Bloom (Figaro) credit Mark Douet.jpg Duncan Rock (Count), Stephen Richardson (Bartolo), Janis Kelly (Marcellina), Timothy Robinson (Basilio), Jennifer France (Susanna), Joshua Bloom (Figaro). Photo credit: Mark Douet.

The last time I saw Janis Kelly, at Glyndebourne in 2016 as Berta in Rossini’s Barbiere, she threatened to steal the show. And, the same was true here: her Marcellina was a cross between 'Hyacinth Bucket' and Queen Elizabeth II, but her voice is still fresh and youthful. The Act 3 revelations of Figaro’s origins were expertly done - Kelly switched from financial grabbing matriarch to matronly concern in the twinkling of an eye; and, Kelly’s theatrical experience no doubt was of enormous help to the younger members of the cast.

Kirsten MacKinnon (Countess), Jennifer France (Susanna), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Cherubino) credit Mark Douet.jpg Kirsten MacKinnon (Countess), Jennifer France (Susanna), Marta Fontanals-Simmons (Cherubino). Photo credit: Mark Douet.

My first thought was that Marta Fontanals-Simmons was too tall for the adolescent Cherubino, but she proved a master (mistress) of fresh-voiced enthusiasm and cross-dressing faux-awkwardness. There were strong performances too from Timothy Robinson as Basilio - ‘What I said about the page was just a suspicion’ was nasally declaimed with wicked delight - and Stephen Richardson’s Dr Bartolo. Richardson ran away from the orchestra in the patter of ‘La vendetta’ but he was a surprisingly sympathetic character, his yearning for love and reconciliation outweighing that for revenge. Alison Rose’s Barbarina was a strongly delineated musical character portrait and Andrew Tipple’s inebriated gardener, Antonio, was gruff of sentiment but precise and vigorous of tone.

There were a few rough edges at this first-night performance, and though Dougie Boyd conducted with vivacious alertness, drawing a full range of emotions from his band, he couldn’t quite keep the Chorus tightly in rein, and the Act 3 Act ending was a little messy. But, the accelerating progression through the Act 2 finale was spot on, and I’m sure any minor teething problems will iron themselves out.

This is a delightful Figaro revival/recreation - what you will - that will undoubtedly get even better as the run progresses.

Claire Seymour

Le nozze di Figaro is performed on 4, 8, 10, 17 June and 3, 6, 8, 11, 14, 16 July.

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro

Figaro - Joshua Bloom, Susanna - Jennifer France, Count - Duncan Rock, Countess - Kirsten MacKinnon, Cherubino - Marta Fontanals-Simmons, Bartolo - Stephen Richardson, Marcellina - Janis Kelly, Basilio - Timothy Robinson, Curzio - Alun Rhys-Jenkins, Antonio - Andrew Tipple, Barbarina - Alison Rose; Director - John Cox, Conductor - Douglas Boyd, Associate Director - Bruno Ravella, Designer - Robert Perdziola, Lighting Designer - Mark Jonathan, Choreographer - Kate Flatt.

Garsington Opera, 2 June 2017.

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