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Reviews

11 Jun 2019

A Classy Figaro at The Grange Festival

Where better than The Grange’s magnificent grounds to present Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. Hampshire’s neo-classical mansion, with its aristocratic connections and home to The Grange Festival, is the perfect setting to explore 18th century class structures as outlined in Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto.

Le nozze di Figaro: The Grange Festival, Hampshire

A review by David Truslove

Above: Toby Girling (Count Almaviva), Wallis Giunta (Cherubino) and Ellie Laugharne (Susanna)

Photo credit: Clive Barda

 

His critique of prevailing social values is treated by Mozart with lacerating humour. No surprise that Beaumarchais’s original play La Folle Journée ou Le marriage de Figaro was banned by King Louis XVI in 1784, or that Nicholas Till in his Festival programme article ‘The Quintessential Revolutionary Artist’ suggests Napoleon Bonaparte considered the play to have been “the first step towards the French Revolution”.

Mozart and Beaumarchais are uproariously subversive, yet this new production from Martin Lloyd-Evans manages to amplify both social power struggles and adulterous intrigues with great wit (not least in its Shakespearean cross-dressing and lecherous scheming) and pointedly highlight issues lurking beneath a seemingly respectable surface. There’s an undeniable sense of unease looming over this comic farce, less associated with the abuse of privilege - the Count’s claim to feudal rights over newlyweds is bad enough - more the dark underbelly of domestic strife exemplified by suggestions of alcohol addiction, self-harm and wife-beating. It’s not exactly black comedy but shades of charcoal repeatedly make a lightning strike just as you’ve been laughing at Cherubino hiding in a closet or Antonio believing he/she has suddenly grown taller as Figaro claims to have leapt from a bedroom window.

Despite the elegant period costumes and conventional designs mostly of flats and screens (respectively Kate Lyon and Tim Reed), contemporary resonances abound, aided and abetted by some well-defined performances of which some are outstanding. Chief amongst these is Toby Girling’s brutish Count Almaviva whose pugnacious, Putin-like features add much to his power-obsessed portrayal which detonates with explosive force in his Act 3 rage aria - a defining moment where his lust for vengeance is truly psychotic. Allied to a strong stage presence is a robust, well-projected baritone, flexible enough to furnish menace and warmth but his insidious bullying leaves you in little doubt of a disturbing nature.

Simona Mihai (Countess Almaviva) and Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro).jpgSimona Mihai (Countess Almaviva) and Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

The Count’s adversary, Figaro, sung by Roberto Lorenzi is no less convincing vocally (with an emphatically delivered ‘Se vuol ballare’) yet a little old-fashioned in expression and gesture. His performance underlines the ease with which Ellie Laugharne creates a vibrant Susanna, impressing as a feisty no-nonsense wife-to-be in the opening duet, and thereafter determined to thwart the Count’s libidinous schemes, while also making sure her beloved toes the line. It’s a full flesh-on-the-bones characterisation that contrasts sharply with Simona Mihai as the neglected and emotionally crushed Countess. (Full marks for the sense of resignation achieved here but are we to believe an 18th-century Countess would not turn a blind eye to a husband’s philandering?) Her ‘Dove sono’ was beautifully sung but I was unmoved.

Of the smaller roles Rowan Pierce is an enchanting Barbarina who commands the stage with her winning glances and in just a handful of lines sings with effortless assurance to deliver a memorable cameo. Wallis Giunta as the handsome gender bending Cherubino also holds the ear and eye and superbly imitates a hip-swinging gait when dressed as a woman while supposedly being a boy - it’s all brilliant buffoonery. Her two arias are nicely turned out too, with lots of adolescent frustration in 'Non so più’ and ardour in ‘Voi che sapete’ both crowned with rapt tone.

RL Fig and Rowan Pierce (Barbarina).jpg Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro) and Rowan Pierce (Barbarina). Photo credit: Clive Barda.

There are some distinguished moments too from Louise Winter as the manipulative then motherly Marcellina who comes into her own with her Act 4 aria. Just as compelling are Jonathan Best’s sturdy Dr Bartolo and Ben Johnson’s dapper Don Basilio who has much more than music-making on his mind every time he sees Cherubino. What a joy, too, to have that dramatic stalwart Richard Suart as the elderly but beady-eyed Antonio - a gardener very much the equal of his superiors.

Below stairs (as it were) the Academy of Ancient Music rose fitfully to the occasion. Notwithstanding an indifferent Overture, the orchestral playing under the helm of Richard Egarr steadily improved and eventually blossomed with some Mozartian magic in the Act 3 wedding festivities. But it was above stage which drew the most consistent and classy music-making.

David Truslove

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro

Count Almaviva - Toby Girling, Countess Almaviva - Simona Mihai, Susanna - Ellie Laugharne, Figaro - Roberto Lorenzi, Cherubino - Wallis Giunta, Marcellina - Louise Winter, Doctor Bartolo - Jonathan Best, Don Basilio - Ben Johnson, Barbarina - Rowan Pierce, Antonio - Richard Suart, Don Curzio - Kamil Bien; Director - Martin Lloyd-Evans, Conductor - Richard Egarr, Designer - Tim Reed, Costumes - Kate Lyons, Lighting Designer - Peter Mumford, Grange Festival Chorus, The Academy of Ancient Music.

The Grange Festival, Hampshire; Thursday 6th June 2019.

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