Irritating Directors’ Conceits. Part 1 of a likely series

19 Aug

I wonder why directors feel the need to have action during the overture to Le nozze di Figaro?  It’s only three and a half minutes or so and it’s a wonderful piece of music so you just want to listen to it.  It tells you all you need to know about the tension, turbulence and wit that is to come and the opera is so good that it doesn’t really need any other introduction.  Yet both David McVicar and, now, Michael Grandage have decided that audiences need something to look at.  In Grandage’s case in his new Glyndebourne production, it’s servants preparing the Count’s country house for his arrival in a car, which gets a round of applause.  The problem is that you’re so busy watching what’s going on that you don’t really hear the overture, so I’m not sure how Robin Ticciati conducted it.  I suppose there’s nothing damaging about it but, beyond making it clear that this is set in the 1960s and giving us a nice warm feeling, I wasn’t sure what purpose it had.

In fact, it proved to be something of a pointer for what the whole evening was going to be like – enjoyable, amiable, but not always hitting a bullseye  in the way that Grandage so often does when he directs plays.

It looks handsome – Christopher Oram’s sets are gorgeous (and could be used also for Entfuhrung without any change at all).  The costumes pretty much get the social differences.  If I’m going to cavil, I wondered if you needed such steep steps in the Countess’s bedroom, while the placing of the chairs for the letter duet seemed rather far upstage but, apart from that, this was a perfectly fine setting.

Within those sets, what went on was fine.  In lots of ways, it looked very like a traditional Figaro production – after the overture nothing, apart from some half-hearted jiving in Act III, would have looked out of place in a period setting.  I liked a lot of the direction of the arias and of the characters – Vito Priante’s Figaro in “aprite un po'” was patently in shock and utterly miserable about Susanna and in “Non più andrai” made it clear that he was singing as much to the Count as to Cherunbino – and this Count was too thick to notice.

And yet there were also things missed.  Some of these were musical clues.  In the opening duet, I think it’s pretty likely that Figaro, being a man, doesn’t look at Susanna’s hat the first time he says it’s lovely and that’s why she repeats “guarda un po”.  In the second act finale, the Countess/Susanna whispers to Figaro about the commission and the seal can be part of a fairly complex and risky series of movements aimed at getting information from one side of a room to another without the Count noticing – here it didn’t really go for much.  There’s nothing wrong with this but I felt that a bit of interest was missed.  Similarly, you don’t have to make Antonio completely sozzled in Act II, but I didn’t feel that Grandage replaced it with anything and so that fine character singer Nicholas Folwell seemed a bit anonymous.  Ditto Colin Judson’s alert Curzio who had no stammer.  Similarly, might not Bartolo be a bit reluctant or rueful when Marcellina gets him to marry her?  Here he was delighted, which is fine, but it loses a bit of the complexity and humanity in this opera.  So, for much of it, I thought that Grandage captured much of the joy, some of the fun and emotions but that he could have dug deeper into the emotions.  Some traditions were cut away, but not replaced with anything much.

It was a good cast.  Priante sings Figaro very well and presents a fairly serious servant.  Lydia Teuscher is a lovely, alert Susanna.  I thought Sally Matthews sang the Countess really beautifully even if I wasn’t quite sure why on earth she forgave the Count at the end.  Audun Iversen was similarly excellent as the Count.  I like his voice very much and he acted a burly, rather stupid, thoughtless Count who can really think of only one thing very well.  Isabel Leonard was an extraordinarly convincing Cherubino and sang her arias really well.

The character roles were excellently taken.  Andrew Shore doesn’t have the usual deep bass that you expect from Bartolos, but it paid dividends in the patter and I found his hyper-active, angry little man really diverting – as good a Bartolo as I’ve seen.  Ann Murray was luxury casting and did Marcellina wonderfully.  Alan Oke was one of the slimiest of Basilios. The latter were denied their arias: I feel ambivalent about that – I’d have liked to hear Oke and Murray sing them but they aren’t Mozart’s greatest and they do hold the action up.  The chorus was excellent.

Robin Ticciati’s conducting struck me as having lots going for it – I thought he accompanied the arias really well and pointed up the instrumental commentary very subtly.  Tempi were brisk – it can’t just have been the loss of the two arias that got us out 20 minutes before the advertised time.  I didn’t feel that he had quite the same measure of the score as, say, Mackerras and Rattle have brought in this theatre, but it was a strong, more than reliable reading.

So this was a really enjoyable, happy evening at Glyndebourne and, as with all good Figaros, I sat through it mostly with a smile on my face. I feel slightly mean to suggest that it could have been just a bit better, but Glyndebourne makes a lot of its Figaro tradition and this wasn’t quite in the same league as the opening runs of either the Schaaf or McVicar productions at the ROH. I’d go again, though, to see how it develops with a different cast.

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