An excellent Figaro at Opera Holland Park

What a welcome return to Holland Park this proved to be. Glorious weather helped, of course—quite a change from an earlier visit to Glyndebourne with altogether necessary overcoat and umbrella—but the achievement of Opera Holland Park first of all in putting on a season at all, let alone with its customary artistic success, deserves the highest praise.

One might think one could hardly go wrong with The Marriage of Figaro, though all too many recent productions have proved otherwise. In reality, it requires, like all Mozart, excellence in every respect. There is nowhere to hide, least of all in musical terms. The City of London Sinfonia was on good form, conducted by George Jackson, who fell prey to none of the traps readily walked entered by many of his peers. Instead, what we heard was an imaginative, wisely comprehending performance of Mozart’s score. Everyone will have his own ideas concerning tempi. In most cases, there will be various solutions. The trick is to make them work: largely, if anything but simply, a matter of ensuring a steady underlying tempo, which can certainly be varied, whilst at the same time hearing and conveying the act and ultimately the entire opera as a whole. There were, quite naturally, occasions when I initially wondered whether an initial tempo, at odds with how I might hear in my head, would work. There were none, however, when I was not swiftly convinced by Jackson’s choice: even Susanna’s emergence from the wardrobe, which showed a due sentiment of wonder can sound faster than I had believed.

A keen ear for orchestral detail, sometimes interpretative such as a cartoonish descending cello line, more often straight from the score, was in evidence throughout. Crucially, Jackson and his players conveyed an underlying melancholy, sometimes something darker still, as necessary counterpart to high spirits. There was room to breathe and to reflect: not so much a matter of speed, or even tempo, as of understanding and communicating the relationship between words, melody, harmony, and, this being opera, gesture. This was definitely Mozart’s comedy, not Rossini’s. The score was necessarily given in a reduced orchestration by Jonathan Lyness, which, lack of double wind notwithstanding, often tricked one into thinking one was simply hearing a small orchestra. Wind came naturally to the fore, balance not always as expected, but there was really no ground for complaint—and every ground for gratitude that this was happening at all, let alone so well.

Ross Ramgobin as Figaro © Ali Wright

Whilst there is no reason to be ageist about this, Figaro responds well to a cast of young singers—always, of course, provided they are capable of navigating its treacherous waters. This cast certainly was; it worked very well in ensemble too. The central quartet—Julien Van Mellaerts as the Count and Nardus Williams as the Countess; Elizabeth Karani as Susanna and Ross Ramgobin as Figaro—and others besides provided that necessary sense of reacquainting us with characters many fancy we know so well yet also of bringing something distinctive, of anchoring their portrayals in this particular Figaro, rather than some generic conception. All impressed in their various ways. Van Mellaerts, in combination with Jackson, had me sit up and take notice of quite what seria depth Mozart achieves in the Count’s third-act recitativo accompagnato and aria, ‘Hai gia vinta la causa … Vedrò mentr’io sospiro’.  Detail and style matter here—not necessarily prescriptively, but generalisation will not do—as of course do their relationship to the whole. Williams brought great musical virtues to a finely balanced portrayal of dignity and sense of fun: this was Rosina, as well as ‘the Countess’. Karani and Ramgobin judged their standing at the centre of every intrigue extremely well: a musical just as much as a stage matter. Handling of recitative was just as impressive as their arias, which grew out of the former as musico-dramatic necessity.

Ross Ramgobin as Figaro and Samantha Price as Cherubino © Ali Wright

Cherubino is a gift of a trouser role, yet no less tricky for that. Samantha Price had its measure, capturing not only its effervescence but a hint of the sadness—at least for those of us no longer quite so youthful—that lies with its distance. Victoria Simmonds and James Cleverton ensured that Marcellina and Bartolo, even shorn of their fourth-act arias, were more than stock buffo characters. As ever, the angel as well as the devil lies in the detail. A wily Daniel Norman as Basilio, and a bluff Antonio in Henry Grant Kerswell added to the fun; as did last, but far from least, Claire Lees’s beautifully sung, intelligently acted Barbarina. A small chorus, well directed and supplemented as is customary by the Holland Park peacocks, helped bind the action together in stage as well as musical fashion.

Oliver Platt, whose work I have admired in not one but two productions of Così fan tutte (Holland Park and the Guildhall), pulled off the difficult task of directing a Figaro for a time of social distancing. For the most part, one forgot—at least I did—that the characters were not interacting quite as normal. So much can be done, and was, with implication and choreography (for which plaudits to Caitlin Fretwell Walsh’s movement direction). Then there were moments, frozen as if for reflection, in which a sense of distance opened up: opening up being the operative word, since they were open to interpretation rather than dogmatically defined. The same might be said of a stylised, punkish look at costumes (takis) that were not quite what we might initially have thought. When we saw the servants, they were not really servants at all, let alone serfs. Crucially, they wore wigs. Who were they? People playing at being servants?

– Julien Van Mellaerts as Count Almaviva and Nardus Williams as Countess Almaviva
© Ali Wright

Moreover, whilst it would be difficult to claim this as an overtly political Figaro, it would be equally difficult not to draw political conclusions from the sense of judgement being passed on the Count and indeed the metatheatrical way the characters—perhaps partly out of character—turned on him and ultimately left him in isolation at the end of the second act. Judge not, that ye be not judged, takes on different meaning in a drama involving manorial justice—whatever the temporal context(s).

For opera is always constructed, never more so than now. Charlotte Chisholm’s resourceful work on a set necessarily conceived for two operas, this and La traviata, once again had one pretty much forget the restrictions under which we still labour—until a moment recalled the fact to us, at which one lauded the achievement. The action flowed with plenty of incident, yet nothing that jarred. Where there was anachronism, as for instance in the third-act ballet—what a history there is to that, as Lorenzo Da Ponte’s Memoirs so memorably recount—it was quite deliberately so. Distance intervened, momentarily, on and off stage; and then all came back together, audience included. That, surely, is what opera needs right now: solidarity and action in knowledge of the crisis that engulfs us.

Mark Berry

Count Almaviva – Julien Van Mellaerts, Countess Almaviva – Nardus Williams, Susanna –Elizabeth Karani, Figaro – Ross Ramgobin, Cherubino – Samantha Price, Marcellina – Victoria Simmonds, Bartolo – James Cleverton, Basilio, Don Curzio – Daniel Norman, Barbarina – Claire Lees, Antonio – Henry Grant Kerswell, First Bridesmaid – Naomi Kilby, Second Bridesmaid – Susie Buckle; Director – Oliver Platt, Conductor – George Jackson, Designs – taki, applied on the set for La traviata by Cordelia Chisholm, Lighting – Rory Beaton, Movement – Caitlin Fretwell Walsh, Opera Holland Park Chorus (chorus master: Richard Harker), City of London Sinfonia.

Opera Holland Park, London; Saturday 12th  June 2021

ABOVE: Members of the Opera Holland Park Chorus in Opera Holland Park’s 2021 production of The Marriage of Figaro © Ali Wright