Just as the applause for the overture ended and the main curtain rose on the Oper Leipzig’s production of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte’s Le nozze di Figaro, the audience was already moved to applaud a second time. What initially appeared to be a projection of the estate’s façade against the black curtain was, in fact, a carefully produced stencil on a sheer scrim. Placed before Gil Mehmert’s clever design of a large, multi-floor cut-away of the manor, the opening effect was at once cinematic and proudly self-aware about the moderate size of the stage, as well as the traditionally baroque architecture used for the ever-present set.
Yet as this second drape peeled away to reveal the innards, Mehmert’s collaboration with builders Jens Kilian and Eva-Maria Van Acker only began to reveal the full eccentricity of their seemingly dated concept. As necessitated by the plot, the eight rooms and courtyard of the house, with its many staircases, windows, and furnishings presented a number of hiding places; but the design seemed to revel in defying the audience’s expectations at every possible moment, revealing hidden dumbwaiters and a mix of other smaller, or more shockingly obvious hideaways which were only ever half out of view. Their sustained misdirection led to numerous moments of genuine surprise, which only added to simpler moments of comedy without distracting from the remaining drama.
The clothes fit the players entirely, as Matthias Foremny led the Gewandhausorchester at a smart clip through the score, never overpowering the singers while surgically drawing out Mozart’s varied instrumentation. This fast pace complemented the witty antics on stage, without allowing too much time for Mozart’s repetitions to wear. Katharina Thöni’s simpler take on the harpsichord accompaniment for the recitatives was equally understated and devoid of the pretentious romantic flourishes that often ruin da Ponte’s core humour. In the third act this interpretation slightly flagged, its relatively dry attitude only highlighting the usual problems with staging da Ponte’s ponderous build-up of twists in the action. The audience was otherwise enthralled, and rightly applauded double at every opportunity for both Foremny and the orchestra.
Their fullest appreciation, however, was reserved for Wallis Giunta’s outstanding performance as Cherubino. Giunta brought an effortless sense of physical humour to a role which often has its singers struggling to keep up with the playwright’s demands. From ‘Non so piu cosa son, cosa faccio’ to the fourth act finale, Giunta’s Cherubino was consistently the brightest star on stage, both musically and dramatically. The first aria caused the first applause long enough to almost halt the action. Perhaps most striking was Giunta’s mobility, even while tackling the most difficult passagework, bringing a certain level of animation to the imposing, monolithic set all on her own. Throughout, the lightness of her voice was evenly projected at every register, truly capturing the elusive ‘boyishness’ which is supposed to separate Cherubino in the comic ensemble numbers.
Sporting a bizarre mullet hairdo over eighteenth-century costumes – a modern take on the pompadour in front, mid-back length hair behind – this Cherubino’s entrance in the second act for their ‘Voi, che sapete’ projected equal parts Travolta in Grease and Tom Hulce in Amadeus. The build-up of playful tension was neatly released before the semi-dramatic final scene with an especially funny inside joke, at Cherubino’s last entrance: Giunta, entering stage left, strumming on a mandolin, while singing nonsense syllables to the tune of ‘Là ci darem la mano’, from Mozart’s Don Giovanni. What could have been a hokey addition was instead brought off as a layered allusion to the same trick Mozart pulled in Giovanni when he referenced Figaro at a similar point in its final act. Half of the audience was in stitches, so much so that this time the conductor did need to take a pause – with this reviewer included among the guilty.
No less interesting was Sejong Chang as our dubious hero Figaro. In Chang’s interpretation, a slightly more modern Figaro’s lopsided ethics were left to the music, presented through the otherwise traditional stance taken by the stage direction. Tugging at his braces and posturing grandly while he strutted his ‘Non piu andrai’, Chang’s excellent sense of phrasing and comic timing brought a love-to-hate-him quality to the ex-barber’s antics, one which he sustained in his numerous recitatives. Unlike many recent performances, the result was that his raging fourth act aria, ‘Tutto è disposto’, felt less like a surprise than a natural reaction for the character. Yet it was not merely for his opening cavatina that Chang’s Figaro remained at least somewhat sympathetic; the alternating vocal tenderness and stunned sotto voce that Chang brought to the third act sextet floated an otherwise ponderous affair.
Unfortunately, this energy was not always present. While otherwise a respectable performance, the Count Almaviva as played by Mathias Hausmann spent the first act trying to find his steam. By the time his aria rolled around in the third act this seemed a distant memory, as Hausmann otherwise brought a bold voice and straightforwardly libidinous reading to the Count. But it remained odd that in their initial entrances, the supporting hold-over cast from The Barber of Seville largely overpowered the Count, however wonderful Milcho Borovinov was as an especially blundering Bartolo. Likewise, it was perhaps unintentionally humorous that for once, Basilio the music master (Sunnyboy Dladla, in appropriately rough form) got to out-sing the Count in their trio with Susanna.
Marika Schönberg as the Countess and Olena Tokar as Susanna were equally engaging in ensembles, though their small “letter” duet felt especially cramped. Schönberg’s ‘Porgi, amor’ was nonetheless a highlight of the show, and could easily find a place on a recorded collection of ‘Mozart’s best arias’, showcasing a brilliant understanding of the piece’s structure with tactful dynamic control and outstanding diction. Here, too, Foremny deserves praise for leading Leipzig’s exceptionally nuanced winds in Mozart’s quietest meditation on the pains of romance.
In a time when so many performances of Figaro have become commonplace draws seemingly employed just to fill out a house’s subscription seats, the Oper Leipzig deserves pride of place as an example of what can be done with a traditional take on Mozart. The high degree of subtlety throughout allowed for a better appreciation of the original artistry that established the work in the first place. If anything, this production’s resistance to any extremes made it all the funnier, without leaving the cast to make music by halves. Bravo, bravissimo!
Le nozze di Figaro was at Opernhaus Leipzig on 14th, 18th and 27th November 2015. Further performances will take place on 30th January 2016 and 12th March 2016.