Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera

and 2010,
now returns as part of the Royal Opera House’s ‘Da Ponte
cycle’. I cannot help wishing that funds had stretched to commissioning
three new productions, preferably from the same director, with a sense of how
the works might actually cohere as a ‘cycle’. Nevertheless, and
despite a good number of reservations I continue to entertain, McVicar’s
production remains preferable to Jonathan
Miller’s vulgar CosÏ fan tutte
, and, assuming it not to have
been overhauled beyond recognition, Francesca
Zambello’s vacuous Don Giovanni

FIGARO-BC20120208824.gifAnna Bonitatibus as Cherubino and Jeremy White as Antonio

Moving the action to the 1820s does no Restoration period, but the motivation remains obscure. If the
point be to highlight Talleyrand’s observation concerning the restored
Bourbons, that they had learned nothing and forgotten nothing, then it needs to
be made, not assumed. The Count’s droit de seigneur is a gross
exaggeration in the eighteenth century; in the nineteenth, it merely seems
incredible. ‘Absolutism’ was of course a nineteenth-century way of
understanding the ancien rÈgime, painting a complex society in the
bold, often crude colours of monarchs such as Charles X. A good deal of
sophistication would be needed to make the shift coherent, yet here the
political seems notable for the most part by its absence. We have neither a
society of orders nor an emergent class-based society, merely a house with
hyperactive servants in attractive costumes. The result, whatever the
intention, seems to be pandering to devotees of mindless ‘costume
dramas’. It all nevertheless looks good, and certain moments are very
well handled, especially the magical falling of dusk between the third and
fourth acts. (Incidentally, when audience members are relentlessly intent upon
disrupting the action with mid-act applause, why do they then fall silent at
the end of an act? Mystifying!) The servants’ running about during the
Overture remains an unnecessary irritant — can anyone really think that
Mozart’s music deserves to be drowned out by footsteps? — and Leah
Hausman’s revival direction, sadly, tends towards the Carry On
school, only encouraging a vocal, puerile section of the audience, about which
more anon.

FIGARO-BC2012020826.gifLucas Meachem as Count Almaviva and Rachel Willis-Sorensen as Countess Almaviva

The greatest surprise of the evening was perhaps Sir Antonio Pappano’s
conducting. There were problems: too often, he seems to view Mozart as aspiring
towards Rossini, and the consequent motor rhythms have no place whatsoever in
Mozart’s music. Certain aspects of phrasing also suffered in that
respect, perhaps most glaringly in the Overture; articulation, where
desperately needed, came there none. The use of natural horns was at best
questionable; their rasping at the conclusion of Figaro’s fourth act aria
was unpleasant in the extreme. That said, and with the notable exception of the
end of the second act, Pappano did not harry the score; indeed, there were
moments when he clearly communicated his delight in its subtleties. Woodwind
might not have ravished in the way they did for
Sir Colin Davis in 2010
, but they seduced nevertheless. Tempi convinced for
the most part, and there was little of the tendency towards mere
‘accompaniment’ that has often held back this conductor’s
work previously. I seem to be the only person who regrets the
‘traditional’ cuts in the fourth act, but regret them I do.

Casting Figaro successfully seems trickier than one would expect.
Even in 2010, a simply astounding male team of Erwin Schrott (Figaro) and
Marius Kwiecien (the Count) had to endure sub-par contributions from their
Susanna and Countess. Here the undoubted star was Aleksandra Kursak’s
Susanna, ever musical, ever lively, and above all ever alert to the twists and
turns Da Ponte and Mozart lovingly throw her way. One could not, for the
duration of the performance, imagine it being done better any other way.
Phrasing was telling but unobtrusive, likewise her sideways glances.

FIGARO-BC20120208534.gifIldebrando D’Arcangelo as Figaro and Susana Gaspar as Barbarina

d’Arcangelo has never lacked stage presence, and his voice at its
dark-chocolate best remains as attractive as his handsome visage and figure.
There were, however, a good few moments, especially earlier on, when his
delivery lacked focus. Lucas Meachem’s Count suffered similarly, though
he also lacked his valet’s presence — a serious drawback, alas.
Rachel Willis-S¯rensen’s Countess was a serious disappointment: I have
never heard ‘Porgi, amor’ so ill-tuned, nor so squally. She
improved as time went on, but throughout lacked grace and, straightforwardly,
character. The Cherubino of Anna Bonatatibus also disappointed: ill-focused and
short-breathed. Even the Marcellina of a stalwart such as Ann Murray, an artist
I admire greatly, sometimes sounded out of sorts. And would directors please
cease their fixation with turning Don Basilio into a camp monstrosity? It is
entirely unwarranted in either libretto or score, and has simply become a
tedious clichÈ.

Finally, alas, a character that was all too present on this occasion: the
audience, or at least a considerable section thereof. I had been tempted to
open with the words, ‘more in sorrow than in anger,’ but that would
have misled, for both emotions ran to the surface dealing with so disruptive a
crowd. All manner of disruption was present, unremittingly so. Barely a bar
went by without a cough or two. Objects were dropped left, right, and centre
— and I am not referring to the stage business. A watch alarm made a
charming accompaniment to ‘Porgi, amor’, though we had to wait a
little longer for telephones to make their first appearance. Worst of all was
the incessant, moronic laughter, perhaps to a certain extent elicited by more
dubious aspects of the production; but really, if one finds someone walking
onstage with a dog intrinsically hilarious, then one may need to seek

FIGARO-BC2012020852.gifAlexandra Kurzak as Susanna and Ildebrando D’Arcangelo as Figaro

The slightest reference — via the surtitles, be it noted
— to anything sexual was met with all the maturity of a convention for
non-recovering Benny Hill Show addicts. I should say that those people
needed to get out more, except I should much rather they stayed at home. Most
unforgivable was the laughter that greeted those words: ‘Contessa,
perdono’. McVicar’s production brings a true sense of revelation at
that point, the show-stopping appearance of the Countess, ravishing and in more
than one sense graceful, fully in tune with Mozart’s approaching
benediction. What is even remotely hilarious about seeking a forgiveness that
goes beyond even the humanity of the Countess to the Almighty Himself, that
‘peace … which passeth all understanding’? Even if somehow
one were to find that hysterically amusing — presumably one would then
guffaw through King Lear or the Missa Solemnis — one
might have some regard for fellow members of the audience, those who might have
come to hear Mozart’s score. As the gentleman seated next to me commented
during the curtain calls, it made one long to be Ludwig II, alone with
one’s art. None of this is, of course, in any sense the fault of the
Royal Opera House, but perhaps an announcement requesting silence during
performance and the occasional summary execution, pour encourager les
, might be in order.

Mark Berry

image_description=Alexandra Kurzak as Susanna [Photo © ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper]
product_title=W. A. Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro, ossia la folle giornata (KV 492)
product_by=Figaro: Ildebrando d’Arcangelo; Susanna: Aleksandra Kurzak; Bartolo: Carlo Lepore; Marcellina: Ann Murray; Cherubino: Anna Bonitatibus; Count Almaviva: Lucas Meacham; Don Basilio: Bonaventura Bottone; Countess Almaviva: Rachel Willis-S¯rensen; Antonio: Jeremy White; Don Curzio: Harry Nicoll; Barbarina: Susanna Gaspar; Bridesmaids: Melissa Alder, Louise Armit. Director: David McVicar; Movement, Revival Director: Leah Hausman; Designs: Tanya McCallin; Lighting: Paule Constable; Royal Opera Chorus (chorus master: Renato Balsadonna); Orchestra of the Royal Opera House/Sir Antonio Pappano (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, Tuesday 14 February 2012.
product_id=Above: Alexandra Kurzak as Susanna

Photos © ROH 2012 / Bill Cooper