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Le Nozze di Figaro

by on 8 June 2019

Multi-Layered Mille-Feuille

Le Nozze di Figaro

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte

The Grange Festival, The Grange, Northington until 30th June

A review by Mark Aspen

Multi-layered Mozart, majestic, mellow, musically exquisite, Le Nozze di Figaro opens The Grange Festival season in a stylish production that complements the Beaumarchais story told last year in Rossini’s Il Barbiere di Siviglia. It continues the adventures of Figaro a year of so on when the erstwhile barber now is in the service of Count Almaviva as his valet.

However, Mozart moves the mood on in Le Nozze di Figaro, from Rossini’s romp to something with much darker undertones. Both are opera buffa, but the comedy is now much blacker. Almaviva is no longer a romantic youth, but a despotic misuser of his household. Figaro and Susanna are about to get married, but Almaviva is planning to exercise droit de seigneur and claim her maidenhead. Rossini’s plot is quite simple, but Mozart’s librettist, da Ponte takes the plot along more twists and turns than the Stelvio Pass, and Mozart points up every hairpin turn in a gorgeous and witty interplay of unforgettable music.

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The Grange production pulls out the complexity and the darkness from the story, without in any way undermining the thrills, the farce or the comedy in the story.

The Academy of Ancient Music, playing with period precision (barring a couple of wobbles) under the baton of the versatile musician Richard Egarr, is alive to all the nuances of Mozart’s score from the well-known breakneck presto of the overture to the intricacies of the wedding feast finale.

Designer Tim Reed creates a set that hints at the duplicity in the darker motives of the protagonists, heavily-rich colours, swags of foliage in the muted mellowness of an Old Master, something a bit sinister that smacks of Caravaggio. The sense of faded grandeur somewhat echoes the preserved distressed décor of The Grange itself. In its shadowing of the misuse of power unfolding on stage, it seemed to reference the closing days of the ancien régime that Napoleon himself noted about Beaumarchais’ play on which Le Nozze di Figaro is based.

Beaumarchais’ Figaro was seen to be so political subversive that it was banned in a number of European countries. Joseph II though was fairly relaxed about da Ponte’s libretto for Mozart’s opera buffa, as only the gentry went to the opera. Le Nozze di Figaro may be an Italian opera written for the Austro-Hungarian court, but its sentiment is still thoroughly French, a farce based on a mille-feuille of thwarted amorous desires. Its spectrum ranges from unbridled sex, to amorous love, to decorous marriage, but my goodness, everybody’s at it!

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At the nasty end of this spectrum is Count Almaviva re-establishing his feudal rights of droit de seigneur which he had vowed to abolish. The wily Figaro, and his ever-resourceful bride Susanna, are however more than a match for their lecherous master.
Toby Gerling’s powerful baritone voice and forceful strutting body-language paint a picture not so much of an arrogant aristocrat but of a bull-necked pugilist, who will have his own way, and with Gerling’s strong stage presence the picture is of one not to be messed with. Figaro’s approach is ma, piano, piano (but softly, softly) as he determines to frustrate Almaviva’s intentions towards his bride. Se vuol ballare … sì, le suonerò (If you want to dance … I’ll play the tune) is Figaro’s short cavatina that sums up how he will “catchee monkee”. Bass-baritone Roberto Lorenzi, as an energetic Figaro, delivers the cavatina with a sense of tethered aggression. There is a barely disguised alpha-male squaring-up between the two men that is only restrained, resentfully, by valet Figaro’s deference to his master.

Here we have a version of Le Nozze di Figaro, which, in spite of its true to period setting and Kate Lyons’ authentic costumes, is certainly no chocolate-box whimsy.

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On the sexual harassment front, we have another prospective predator, the pubescent pageboy, Cherubino, fired up with the rising sap of teenage testosterone. Wallis Giunta clearly relishes the breeches role, flitting around, goosing the gals below stairs, and mooning after the ladies above stairs. While the ladies are cross-dressing him, one of Figaro’s ruses, Cherubino explains his hormone affliction, “Voi che sapete che cosa e amor, Donne …” (You ladies know what love is …). Mezzo Giunta’s meticulous delivery of the aria has a plaintive appeal that is hauntingly captivating.

Ellie Laugharne’s Susanna is a woman who knows her own destiny. Despite her precarious position, she can balance guarded necessity against a slight amusement at the manly mayhem around her. As a smile flickers across her lips, you know that she is the brains behind the Figaro-Susanna conspiracies. Laugharne (whom we saw last season as Phyllis in ENO’s tongue-in-cheek Iolanthe ) has a clear soprano with a pleasing legato which softens even Susanna’s harsher pronouncements.

That director, Martin Lloyd-Evans has made this production of Le Nozze di Figaro a realistic and emotionally observed version, is very evident in the rounding of the character of Countess Almaviva. RossFigaroPromo4ini’s erstwhile chased (and chaste) Rosina, has in Mozart’s Figaro now become the Count’s neglected wife. Romanian soprano Simona Mihai picks up this approach, giving a tragic Countess who is really experiencing the pain of being passed over by her husband for other women. When we discover her, distraught, “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro al mio duolo, a’ miei sospir …” (Grant, love, some relief from my sorrow, from my sighing … ), Mihai’s rendering is truly moving.

Almost as a visual metaphor Lloyd-Evans has a motif of flowers being offered, rejected and then accepted, echoing the continuing theme of sexual ambitions frustrated, reignited and then stymied (or redirected) that is the fate of so many if the protagonists. This continues through in the sub-plot of Dr Bartolo, the guardian of the Countess when she was in her minority, and his housekeeper Marcellina, who appear on the scene to redeem her contract with Figaro for a monetary loan, the default to which is the he must marry Marcellina. We are in very safe hands with the highly experienced pairing of Jonathan Best as a sullen Dr Bartolo and Louise Winter as Marcellina, who transmogrifies from acerbic harridan to maternal matron following the (pre DNA-testing era) discovery of their true relationship with Figaro. This, at first antagonistic, sub-plot is completed by tenor Ben Johnson (also seen in Iolanthe) as a preening Don Basilio, the Count’s musician.

The entrance of this trio forms the basis of the ensemble sequence in Act Two, as the plot takes one of its many turns. Also bursting in on the scene, via a ladder and open window, is the elderly gardener, Susanna’s uncle Antonio, complaining about the man (Cherubino!) who fell into his carnations. This part is a gift for the consummate character acting skills and rich bass voice of Richard Suart. The ensemble builds from trio to quartet, to quintet, to septet, in a technically demanding and musically intricate tour de force, in which each character expresses differing emotions, be it anger, sadness, hope or open glee: musically and dramatically impressive.

The role of Barbarina is usually a background one, but for me Rowan Pierce stands out clearly from that background in this role of Antonio’s daughter and one of the girls of the household who has to run the gauntlet of the Count, and of Cherubino. Pierce is an up-and-coming soprano who has commanded a plethora of awards, including the inaugural the Grange’s International SinFigaroPromo5ging Competition. She is a captivating and effective actress, bringing a gamine charm to the role of Barbarina. The sweet bell-like innocence of her singing was beautifully illustrated in the Act Four aria L’ho perdita, (I have lost it). She emerges from under the wedding banquet table, ostensibly referring to the pin that Susanna has used to seal her honey-trap note to the Count, but we know that she has also lost something definitely more irreplaceable under that table.

Of course the Count gets his come-uppance and Figaro gets Susanna as his unmolested wife, and we head towards the happy ever after ending. However, in spite of its traditional period presentation, our Nozze di Figaro has a twenty-first century fizzle of scepticism.

The Count may be ashamed and full of remorse as he pleads on his knees “Contessa perdono!”, but in Gerling’s delivery of these words there is a hint of … until the next time. The Countess may forgive her errant husband and her “Più docile io sono” (I will be more kind) may have been heart-rending, but Mihai’s slant loaded it with ambiguity.

Lloyd-Evans’ Le Nozze di Figaro may have the period chocolate-box wrapping, and indeed its contents are rich, smooth and fulfilling, but they are those fashionable contemporary ones, with the piquant flavours of chillies or crushed peppercorn … sweetness with a bite.

Mark Aspen
June 2019

Photography by Clive Barda

From → Opera, Reviews

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