The Marriage of Figaro, Royal Opera

They are everywhere: carrying crates,
polishing panes, dusting drapes. Silent and insidious, they see all and hear
all. And, they are choreographed to perfection! — although, this is perhaps
not so surprising given the regularity with which McVicar’s tried-and-tested
crowd-pleaser seems to have frequented the Covent Garden stage of late.

Bustling busily during the brisk overture, the stealthy staff provide an
interesting contextual frame through which to view the actions and attitudes of
the shifty aristocracy and their guileful underlings. We, like the servants,
enjoy, collude with, and judge the capers.

And, this superb cast provide much to relish. Italian bass Alex Esposito
returns to the House following his acclaimed performance as Leporello earlier
in the season. Then, I noted that as Don Giovanni’s sleazy servant, Esposito
demonstrated suavity and stylishness, and rued that it ‘was a shame that the
production does not offer more opportunity for him to showcase his skills as a
master of musical comedy and irony’. That was certainly remedied here.
Esposito’s naturally exemplary diction was matched by extraordinary clear,
bright projection which stamped Figaro’s character indelibly on the

This is a Figaro whom we laugh easily with and at; he has testosterone —
manfully lunging for Susanna when measuring up the marital bed — and
vulnerability: the ‘cuckolded’ valet seemed genuinely hurt by his
betrothed’s apparent betrayal in ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’, before
angry bluster shored up his wounded pride. Esposito’s confident comic
presence endows Figaro’s wit and wiles with convincing self-possession; but,
he also playfully punctures the factotum’s smugness. The Finale of Act 2, as
Figaro is forced to think on his feet to negotiate the onslaught from an
enraged master, a truculent gardener and a pack of scheming fraudsters,
wonderfully brought together gleeful triumphs and vexing setbacks.

Esposito’s weighty baritone has startling dramatic power, effortlessly
ringing through the auditorium, and at times, despite the credible attraction
between the soon-to-be married couple, he overpowered Camilla Tilling’s
Susanna. Tilling’s graceful soprano perhaps did not fully convey Susanna’s
spirited sassiness and strong nerve and nous; but, in the second Act, her
sparkle blended endearingly with the Countess’s emotional edginess,
suggesting a hidden fervour. And, the light radiance of her tone added a
delicious dash of irony to ‘Deh vieni non tardar’, sung to the unseen and
unsuspecting Figaro in Act 4, as she awaits the Count’s arrival.

Gerald Finley, returning to the role that he sang in the initial run in
2006, was an engaging Count. Sliding into the servants’ garret like an
unctuous ‘lounge lizard’, Finley was haughtily self-righteous but also
touchingly self-aware, knowing that the time-honoured droits were
slipping inexorably from his grasp. Gun-wielding and assertive, despite the
brusque slap administered to the Countess his threats of violence always seemed
more designed to bolster his own wilting ego rather than a genuine menace.
Finley looks good and sounds good. ‘VedrÚ mentre io sospiro’ was full of
vigour and vivacity, a full-bodied complaint rather than the superficial
ranting of Act 2, which almost made one feel the sense of injustice was
justified. And, the warm tender pleas for forgiveness in Act 4 were
convincingly sincere.

Rebecca Evans’s Countess was certainly a woman in torment; her full tone
was expressive of deep emotions but unfortunately the overly wide vibrato
struck a ‘false note’ in a production where the delivery was characterised
by cleanness, crispness and clarity. ‘Porgi amor’ was assured, though; this
Countess has real dignity. And, Evans paced herself successfully, revealing
musical colours to fit a variety of dramatic situations; the technical
challenges of ‘Dove sono’ presented no problem, and in the latter section
of the aria, a resoluteness suggested that the Count was foolish to
under-estimate his wife’s determination and resources.

If there was a star moment, for me it was Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’
sung with disarming beauty by Italian mezzo-soprano Anna Bonitatibus. If ‘No
sÚ pi˘’ had trembled with pulsing palpitations — Cherubino’s
overflowing romantic energies sending him into a whirl of hyper-activity —
then, after some preparatory , self-motivating arm-swinging and air-pumping,
the page’s well-rehearsed offering of love was a moving embodiment of serene,
self-possessed devotion — a foreshadowing of the captivating chevalier that
the gauche Cherubino will become.

The smaller roles are all well executed. Marie McLaughlin’s Marcellina is
a formidable force to be reckoned with; she makes the role seem dramatically
more central than is often the case. The restless fan-fluttering of Don Basilio
(Guy de Mey) is indicative of the falsity and hypocrisy of the slimy singing
master, and the vocal nuances and timing are well-judged. Don Curzio (Timothy
Robinson) and Antonio (Jeremy White) fit neatly into their roles; Jette Parker
Young Artist, Serbian soprano Duöica Bijeli? sings Barbarina’s aria with
wonderful musical character.

In contrast to John Eliot Gardiner (conducting the last revival in September
2013) whose determinedly expeditious tempi at times pushed his singers to the
brink, David Syrus was sympathetic to his soloists — perhaps a bit too much
so at times, for both Bartolo’s patter (Greek bass Christophoros Stamboglis)
and Cherubino’s breathless shudders seemed inclined to push ahead of the
baton. Occasionally the ensembles were a little ragged, the Finale of Act 2
disappointingly so, for Syrus’s relaxed tempi were at odds with the innate
forward momentum of Da Ponte’s meticulously crafted form with its
strepitoso, [the] arcistrepitoso, [the]
strepitossossimo, with which last every act commonly ends’. Things
may settle down for later performances in the run. But, there were some
striking orchestral commentaries: the trumpet’s leaping arpeggio fanfares
flashed brightly at the close of Act 1, and the contrast with the deliciously
long-breathed, silky clarinet and bassoon coils which introduce the Countess in
Act 2 emphasised the shift to a private world far removed from the public
posing and posturing of the previous act. The continuo was tasteful and
discreet, enriched by some very eloquent cello playing in the accompanied

Tanya McCallin’s sumptuous sets retain their sheen — the servants’
sedulous scrubbing and sponging is clearly up to the mark — and Paule
Constable’s lighting continues to beguile, most especially in the evocative
transformation from Act 3’s imposing interiors to the evocative nocturnal
garden of the final act. This is a real company success, all parts contributing
equally to a pleasing whole.

Claire Seymour

Cast and production information:

Figaro, Alex Esposito; Susanna, Camilla Tilling; Counte Almaviva,
Gerlad Finley; Countess Almaviva, Rebecca Evans; Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus;
Bartolo, Christophoros Stamboglis; Marcellina, Marie McLaughlin; Don Basilio,
Guy de Mey; Antonio, Jeremy White; Don Curzio, Timothy Robonson; Barbarina,
Duöica Bijeli?; First Bridesmaid, Melissa Alder; Second Bridesmaid, Louise
Armit; Director, David McVicar; Revival Director, B·rbara Lluch; Conductor,
David Syrus; Designs, Tanya McCallin; Lighting Design, Paule Constable;
Movement Director, Leah Hausman; Orchestra of the Royal Opera House; Royal Opera Chorus. Royal Opera House, Covent
Garden,Friday 2nd May 2014.

product_title= W A Mozart : The Marriage of Figaro, Royal Opera House, London, 2nd May 2014
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour