Le Nozze di Figaro
Location: Glyndebourne, Sussex
Event Date: June 2012
Review Date: 16th July 2012
Reviewed By: Edward Jacobson
Review Citation: Edward Jacobson, review of Le Nozze di Figaro
Date Accessed: 23rd May 2013
A staple of the operatic repertory since its premiere in 1786—a time when the idea of an operatic repertory was in its fledgling form—Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro offers some of the most significant challenges to any director of opera, especially at Glyndebourne. These challenges, however, do not arise from staging the work itself: to the musically-literate director, every dramatic moment is embedded within the score. Mozart explicitly composed each character’s entrance and exit, every opened door and window, and every mistaken and subsequently revealed identity. Only an intentional disregard for the music on the part of the director could possibly subvert the natural dramatic pacing of Le nozze di Figaro.
What makes Figaro such a challenge to stage is the extramusical baggage which the opera has accrued over the past two and a quarter centuries, baggage which is particularly heavy at the Glyndebourne Festival. The company’s close association with Mozart—and especially Le nozze di Figaro—extends back to the festival’s origins, when in 1934 the opera inaugurated the first summer season at the estate in East Sussex. Thus when Michael Grandage presented his new concept of Mozart’s universally-beloved opera on 27 June 2012, he was presenting to an audience with serious and long-formed prejudices about the work. Likely each person in attendance not only owned several recordings, many had likely seen numerous productions (even numerous productions at Glyndebourne), and with this familiarity comes certain expectations about how the work should be presented.
The obsession in opera (an obsession largely unique in the world of performing arts) for productions which adhere to how a work was 'originally performed' has the possibility to incite outrage when directors use their license to strip away the Rococo frills which usually adorn Le nozze di Figaro
. Grandage’s modernisation of the work—transporting the action to the late 1960s era of free love—was largely well-received on opening night by Glyndebourne’s notoriously conservative audience. But amidst the encomiums floating around Lewes Station after the performance was the general sense that this Figaro
lacked a certain indescribable sparkle so often associated with the work: Grandage’s vision could best be described as an underwhelming success. Between the heterogeneous voices of the cast, the stunningly beautiful sets, and the rather uninspired costumes, the result was less offensive than it was confusing, an amalgam of mismatched parts more comprehensible as individual entities than when viewed as a whole. In short, the trees made more sense than the forest.
This confusion does not stem solely from Grandage’s modernisation, for although moving the action forward two hundred years inevitably breaks the class boundaries between the Count and this valet, Le nozze di Figaro
(unlike its literary predecessor) is a timeless piece which works on levels beyond a critique of social hierarchy. For Glyndebourne’s new production, the stage action begins from the downbeat of the overture, a four-minute blank canvas which modern directors often exploit to present their interpretation before being fettered by the drama proper. While Christopher Oram’s sets undoubtedly place the action in the libretto’s prescribed Seville, Grandage’s modernisation is not revealed until the Count and Countess drive onto the stage in their convertible at the end of the overture, provoking laughs from the audience but simultaneously subverting the effect of an otherwise sublime musical moment (much like the transformation of the third act’s final chorus into background music at a discotheque). Such moments smack of gimmickry, and as each character enters with a flash of a peace sign, Grandage seems trying a bit too hard to sell his reading of Figaro
. Even ignoring the implications of the anachronistic droit de seigneur
in the twentieth century, Grandage’s directing needs focusing if he is to convince the audience that the work is dramatically viable as a treatise on love alone.
A highlight of the evening, Oram’s Moorish-inspired sets are visually stunning, each scene increasing in resplendence through the interaction between the colourful mosaics and the beams of light shining through the intricately-carved lattices. These sets, however, while so beautifully evocative of North African and Iberian architecture, harshly juxtapose the costumes and their flower power prints and larger-than-life lapels. Of course, a 1960s modernisation can exist outside the world of shag carpeting and burning incense, but the combination of these costumes with the Moroccan-style riad created the confusing sense that the opera was operating on two non-complementary levels. The cast also seemed somewhat confused about how to respond to the strange world constructed by Grandage and his production team.
Vito Priante’s Figaro was well-sung if somewhat unmemorable. By removing the class boundaries between the valet and count, Figaro’s role becomes the most difficult to define. In this updated setting, his outrage over the Count’s attempted resurrection of an extinct feudal rite seemed somewhat contrived. As his bride-to-be Susanna, Lydia Teuscher’s realisation of the role possessed the perfect blend of cunning and coquetry, without being overly saccharine. Her clear technical command made 'Deh vieni non tardar' one of the evening’s vocal highlights, especially the well-executed messa di voce
near the aria’s end.
The Count was commandingly sung by Audun Iversen, but the destruction of class barriers again creates problems in characterisation. The result was a Count appearing more as a sexually-deprived playboy than a tyrannical head of household bent on reasserting his authority, making for a unique (if somewhat problematic) reading of his third act bravura aria 'Vedrò mentr’io sospiro'.
The loudest ovation of the evening was awarded to Sally Matthews’s Countess, testament to the capacity of Mozart and Da Ponte’s finely-crafted character to affect audiences even with underwhelming singing. The dramatic success of Le nozze di Figaro
stems in part from its ability to transcend the mere frivolity of comic opera by drawing on aspects of late eighteenth-century sentimentalism. The Countess, the prototypical sposa abbandonata bemoaning her husband’s infidelity, delivers the opera’s most poignant musical moments: the arias 'Porgi amor' and 'Dove sono', as well as the forgiveness scene where she proffers clemency in the face of her husband’s exposed philandering. While Matthews’s voice was the largest in the cast and possessed an undeniable dramatic edge, it lacked the kind of noble subtlety traditionally associated with the role, and the omnipresent vibrato made for a consonantless 'Dove sono' void of the customary sotto voce during the repeat of the first stanza. Ill-matched with the sweet timbre of Teuscher’s Susanna, the ensuing letter duet appeared far more inelegantly constructed than gracefully spontaneous.
Another audience favourite, Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino was characterised by boyish charm and warm, confident singing in her two arias. More convincing singing came from the supporting members of the cast, with veteran performers Andrew Shore, Ann Murray, and Alan Oke taking up the roles of Bartolo, Marcellina, and Don Basilio, respectively. Given their vocal and dramatic security, it was a pity that in its first outing this production decided to jettison Marcellina and Basilio’s Act IV arias.
The virtuoso conductor was a concept alien to eighteenth-century orchestras, and modern ensembles succeed when their leader knows when to step aside and allow the music to unfold naturally. Such was the case with conductor Robin Ticciati, Glyndebourne’s anointed music director in waiting, who led the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment with a suitable élan that allowed every detail of Mozart’s score to emerge uninhibited. While perhaps an unconvincing first performance, hopefully Grandage can tighten his vision before the production heads to Houston Grand Opera and the Metropolitan Opera.
Le Nozze di Figaro is at Glyndebourne from 27 June to 22 August 2012.