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Figaro in Naples

4 Oct

If you haven’t been to the San Carlo in Naples, it’s worth seeing.  It’s easily one of the most gorgeous auditoriums in Europe: golds and pinks, six tiers of balconies, a glorious painted ceiling and one of he most over the top Royal boxes you’ll come across.  A short holiday there coincided with a performance of Le nozze di Figaro on 30 September and the opportunity was too good to miss.

Sadly, it didn’t really live up to the beauty of the auditorium.  The overture was a pretty good guide to the evening – correct, slightly plodding and rather flat – though that may be what strikes me as a dull acoustic.  Ralf Weikert’s conducting was like that for the entire piece.  The orchestra played efficiently for him but this was one of the dullest, least loving musical performances of this opera I’ve heard for a long time.

The production is by Chiara Muti and isn’t great either.  It’s set in a huge structure of steps and galleries so that people can watch each other and you can see them approaching.  It struck me that it would be a great set for Butterfly, Rosenkaverlier, Chenier or, indeed, Adriana Lecouvreur, which is the next one in the San Carlo’s season.  Here it detracted more than it added.  It didn’t help that a door handle refused to work at one point in Act II leaving you wondering whether people would actually be able to get through it in time – and Cherubino had to go up steps to get to the dressing room, only to go down them again once in.  It allowed for some interesting ideas – Cherubino watching the Countess sing Dove sono, and a hint at the theatricality of the piece.  But what I missed was the characterisation and natural acting.  Everything seemed generalised and overdone.

I felt the cast had the potential to be better than it was.  The absolute star was Rosa Feola as Susanna.  Fresh from Glyndebourne, this was as beautifully and alertly sung and thoughtfully, truthfully acted.  She’s one of the very best Susannas that I’ve seen.  Cinzia Forte was ill and the understudy Countess was nervous and, I’m sure, is better than she sounded.  Simone Alberghini sounded a bit light for the house as the Count but I enjoyed his alert acting and confident way with the words.  Alessandro Luongo, the Figaro was light, amiable but didn’t dominate as he should.

Marina Comparato’s Cherubino was far, far too feminine and I’m not sure that she was singing at her best.  The Marcelina was doing fine as a blowsy, rather vulgar woman until it came to her aria, which, in an amazing act of sadism we had to put up with.  I’m afraid she wasn’t up to its demands.  We also had Basilio’s and I’ve never really seen the point of that.  I really enjoyed Bruno Lazzaretti’s performance of the latter role – alert, singing the text as clearly and naturally as I’ve heard and he didn’t need the aria to help him.  What worried me most of all was how badly the cast blended.  I never imagined that the sextet in Act III could sound ugly but here were four voices simply not working together.

I’ve heard that the Italians don’t really get Mozart.  This felt like evidence of it.  Certainly the audience felt bored rigid and the pleasure that I’d anticipated in hearing an almost completely native Italian cast singing to an audience in its native language was lost.  There was barely a chuckle throughout the evening and, in this opera, that is a major achievement.

Do go to the see the San Carlo, but maybe take care about what you see.

Well-matched Figaro

3 Aug

Glyndebourne seems to have had some trouble selling this revival of Michael Grandage’s aimiable production of Le nozze di Figaro.  Maybe 17 performances is a couple too many and perhaps a cast that would be pretty much entirely unknown to most of the likely audience put people off.  In fact this, the last of the run on 2nd August, was a hugely enjoyable performance by the sort of cast that made you feel that you would probably hear quite a bit more of all of them.

So, Joshua Hopkins as the Count has rather a lovely, firm baritone that sounds just right for the Count (and Giovanni, Papageno, Guglielmo and Onegin) that you very much hope that he’ll be back soon.  He’s a nice actor and plays the arrogant stupidity of the man really well.  He’s matched by Amanda Majeski’s Countess – a gorgeous, creamy voice, absolutely right for the role, who sang one of the most gorgeous Dove sonos that I’ve heard in a long time.  She creates a lively, witty Countess but conveys also the depth of her disgust at her husband at the end of Act III.  Again, she would be welcome back at any time.

Adam Plachetka is well-know in Vienna and makes a very personable Figaro.  In keeping with the production, it’s a quiet, relatively thoughtful Figaro but also a patently decent man, if not as quick on the uptake as his beloved.  His darker baritone contrasted nicely with Hopkins.  Laura Tatalescu was an alert, witty Susanna who was obviously upset by the Countess’s forgiveness of her husband.  The only slight disappointment was a rather choppy Deh vieni.

What was important was that the voices sounded good together and that they interacted intelligently – the emotions were true and logical.

Lydia Teuscher, last year’s Susanna, sang Cherubino.  From where I was sitting, I wasn’t convinced of her boyishness but was completely won over by her singing.  Voi che sapete was sung with such beauty and depth of real feeling that it felt wrong to applaud it – I don’t think I’ve heard a better sung version of the aria since Teresa Berganza and I don’t think even Berganza got that level of sheer feeling out of it.

Anne Mason was a lovely, motherly Marcellina, Luciano di Pasquale a very funny Bartolo and Timothy Robinson even more sleazy as Basilio than his predecessor.  Alasdair Elliott was a really good Curzio and had opportunities to make the part into a real, rather toady-ish little man.

Jérémie Rhorer conducted.  He looks about fifteen, but conducted a lively, alert and brisk reading.  The LPO were on good form and this was one of those evening where pit and singers were part of a single whole.

Ian Rutherford was in charge of Grandage’s productions (one of the best jokes of which is to have a water feature in the last act which nobody falls into).  Details had changed to suit individual singers, mostly for the better.  Christopher Oram’s sets form a handsome, believable backdrop and, on the whole, Glyndebourne has the sort of production that is just right for a young cast to play around in.  It should stand the test of at least another couple of revivals and I hope it comes back.

The audience had a lovely time.  However, the timing of the surtitles needs watching.  Too often the audience was laughing at them rather than at what the singers were singing – to drown the opening of the Act III sextet as a result of that, strikes me as pretty much unforgivable.  But that’s really the only thing wrong with this very happy, satisfying revival.  As ever, I found myself smiling from the Susanna’s entrance from the closet, pretty much to the end and that’s as good a test of a good Figaro as I know.

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.