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Le Nozze di Figaro

by on 27 July 2022

Let’s Tryst Again

Le Nozze di Figaro

by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte, after Pierre Beaumarchais

West Green House Opera, Hartley Wintney until 24th July   

Review by Mark Aspen

As a hush descends on the pavilions around the Theatre on the Lake, a lively wind blows across the gardens of West Green House, bringing with it the perfume of flowers, and setting the vast canvas roof feathering with a loud crack.  It is the perfect cue to Mozart’s breezy overture to his commedia per musica, Le Nozze di Figaro, surely his best known, and often regarded as his greatest overture.

Le Nozze di Figaro is based on La Folle Journée (the crazy day), the second play of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy.  The first play is Le Barbier de Séville, the source for Rossini’s opera Il Barbiere di Siviglia

So, what’s it all about?  Ostensibly it is the story of Figaro and Suzanna, who are trying to get married against all the odds, but unjust causes and impediments stand in their way.  Count Almaviva is trying to exercise droit du seigneur, despite having supposedly renounced it.  Figaro is being pursued by Dr. Bartolo and Marcellina, his old housekeeper, marriage to her being the contractual collateral for a debt of money that Figaro is unable to repay.  These complications are hangovers (in several senses) from The Barber of Seville.  Then there is the Count’s unwarranted jealous suspicious of Rosina, his neglected Countess.  All these difficulties, and others, provide a labyrinth of tangled sub-plots, which have to be untangled during the farce-filled day that is la folle journée

Figaro, with the help of Susanna and the Countess, tries to use his ingenuity, and theirs, to try to navigate their way through the labyrinth with various intrigues and counter-intrigues and untangle the mess.  But there is a fly in the ointment, the testosterone packed teenager, Cherubino, the Countess’s pageboy (and godson), who inadvertently scuppers their various plans.     

Answering the question, what is it all about, some dramaturgs have argued it is about Cherubino.    Some plausibly suggest that Cherubino is embodiment of the spirt of Mozart himself, others, including Min Wood in a programme note for West Green, that he is the precursor of Don Giovanni, the serial philanderer of Mozart and da Ponte’s second collaboration, produced one year later in 1787.   Beaumarchais killed off Cherubino in the third Figaro trilogy La Mère Coupable  (The Guilty Mother).   Director Richard Studer wisely sticks with the orthodoxy that Cherubino is inextricably ambiguous.

So, Cherubino: priapic little sex pest or pampered loveable scamp?  Of course, he’s both.  And does it matter when the ambiguity is compounded by it being a breeches role and a popular one with performers and audience like.  The role is in very safe hands with the versatile and sought-after mezzo-soprano Angharad Lyddon.   She seems ubiquitous since representing Wales in the BBC Cardiff Singer of the World, making an impression earlier this month in The Grange Festival’s Tamerlano.  She was at West Green last year as the light-hearted Olga in Eugene Onegin.  Cherubino, in a bolero jacket and Tio Pepe hat looks like a mini-matador, but as he says in his first aria, Non so più cosa son (I don’t anymore know what I am).  Lyddon really knows how to play with this idea, when to hold a note (and when not).  Her creamy voice comes into its own for Cherubino’s well-known canzone Voi, che sapete che cosa è amor (You who know what love is), which has everyone sighing.

Studer’s minimalist set design comprises three frames delineating rooms in Count Almaviva’s mansion at Aguas-Frescas, his estate near Seville, and a fourth as walk-in wardrobe, always very useful in farce.   The performers mime open and shutting (and locking) doors as they go between rooms (except Figaro who seems blithely to walk through walls!).  Portraits in oils hanging from a William Morris patterned backdrop look down on the shenanigans.  But … Hold on, one is of Mozart, who has a wry smile!

The playful opening with Figaro measuring the allocated matrimonial rooms in estate already shows the chemistry between Jacobo Ochoa’s Figaro and Lorena Paz Nieto’s Susanna.   But, whoops, the playfulness evaporates when they realise how much the arrangement compromises Susanna with the Count.   The mood changes as Figaro hatches his scheme to thwart the Count.  “If you want to dance, Mr Count …” sings Figaro in his familiar cavatina, Se vuol ballare, signor contino …    

Relative newcomer Ochoa hails from Columbia, where he won the National Singing Competition.  His pleasing baritone voice, which settles toward the lower end of the register, has a dynamism which points up the vitality of Figaro, and readily he takes on the mischievousness of the character.  Spanish soprano Lorena Paz Nieto, whom we saw as Lisette in La Rondine at West Green last year, displays all the vivacity and the guile of Susanna, best demonstrated in her brightly sung but gorgeously provocative aria, Deh, vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella  (Come now, do not delay, lovely joy), teasing Figaro into thinking she means the Count, but the Countess has already gulled her own husband.  (Nieto incidentally, has a great line in staged face-slapping, drawing an audible “Ouch!” from the audience.)

Countess Rosina at first seems pitiful, having been emotionally abandoned by her philandering husband.   “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro, al mio duolo” she sings to herself, while sitting for a portrait (Grant, love, some relief to my sorrow).  Galina Averina, whom was also in La Rondine at West Green, as Magda, skilfully interprets Rosina’s roller coaster emotional journey, her voice a clear resonant soprano.  Her Dove sono i bei momenti di dolcezza e di piacer?  (Where are the good times of sweetness and pleasure?) is superb.

The countess is however her own woman.  She cheers up as they laugh at dressing Cherubino as a maid.  (So did a gaggle of geese which took off from the lake, bag on cue, “laughing”!)   Ultimately, in the battle of wits against the Count, and with Figaro as her ally, she wins.

The Count is first seen in tall riding boots, the epitome of authority; then in the second half in a louche silver-trimmed smoking jacking, the epitome of dissipation.  (Jill Rolfe’s eclectic choice of costumes effectively underlines the characters of the protagonists.)  Nicholas Morris plays the Count as brutish, yet respected; as attractive, yet feared; as dissolute, yet not beyond redemption.  Mind you, it takes two attempts for him to be redeemed.  After Susanna, not Cherubino, materialises from the Countess’ boudoir in Act Two, he is contrite.  Yet he has nagging doubts.  It is not until he is wrong-footed during the mayhem that he accepts he is wrong and takes a truly (?) humble stance.  As we in Hampshire, it is perhaps worth drawing the parallel with Jane Austin’s Mr Darcy, who also takes two steps to humility in Pride and Prejudice.  Morris, one time member of King’s College Choir, has great stage presence and a flexible dynamic baritone voice.  In his Vedrò per mano d’amore (Shall I see the hand of love …) makes a powerful but lyrical expression of passion, albeit misplaced.

Jeni Bern has Marcellina gorgeously characterised from the moment she enters and tests the furniture for dust.   From hardened harridan to matronly mother is a broad trajectory for her to trace and Bern does it effortlessly without missing the humour of the role.  But she is certainly a versatile performer, witness her role in the London premiere of Anthropocene as the leader of a polar expedition.  As Marcellina, the lyric clarity of Bern’s stately soprano is splendid to listen to.  Her portrayal is taken just short of caricature.  

Not so however with Trevor Eliot Bowes’ Doctor Bartolo, one time guardian of Rosina, now the Countess, whose martial intentions for her were thwarted by Figaro.  Bowes’ push into caricature is not helped by an exaggerated flower-power wig.  However, Bowes’ lyric bass voice is impressive, as is his aria La vendetta, oh, la vendetta, è un piacer serbato ai saggi (Revenge, oh revenge, it’s a pleasure saved for the wise) taken very fast and with tongue-twisting assonance.   Figaro, as the young Count’s barber, had devised the plot to spring Rosina from the Doctor’s guardianship.

As Bartolo and Marcellina’s accomplice and confidant, tenor Rhodri Prys Jones makes an assured and well characterised Don Basilio, the Countess’ one time music tutor, and in the customary doubling as Don Curzio, the wily lawyer.

Mark Saberton has great fun as the put-upon gardener, Antonio, Susanna’ uncle, singing at the lower end of his baritone register.   The stifled outrage of the misrepresented servant, who is the go-to butt of blame, is portrayed in well-placed comedy.  Even before he comes on stage, we see him crossing the garden, fuming about his upturned flowerpots.  

The maid Barbarina, Antonio’s daughter, is a great role in Le Nozze di Figaro, and soprano Jennifer Clark brings out the quasi-innocent coquettishness of the role.  She sings the aria that opens the final act (and the plot’s denouement) L’ho perduta, me meschina! (I’ve lost it, unhappy me!) with such a plaintive sensitivity that you feel the tears.  There is a hint of an ambiguous tease here, though, as until Figaro comes in it is not clear that she is referring to the pin that Susanna has used to seal the Count’s letter.   Could she have lost something else, and to Cherubino … or to the Count??

Jonathan Lyness conducts the West Green House Opera Orchestra with verve all the vivacity that the mischievousness that Mozart’s opera embodies.  With his two dozen musicians on stage, the orchestra is even more, and certainly visibly more, part of the lively action.   The small chorus not only provide strong musical background, they dance the fandango, with most of the principals, no mean feat on a cramped stage, in the ingeniously choreographed pre-nuptial ball.

La Folle Journée is certainly a crazy day, even in the life of your average Seville aristocrat, and West Green Opera’s Le Nozze di Figaro joyfully untangles its hugger-mugger, helter-skelter plot in, just as the canvas roof foretold, a really cracking performance.

In the summer evening, in the magically lit atmosphere of the fragrant gardens, and looking at that portrait of Mozart, one could almost see the wry smile turning to a broad grin.

Mark Aspen, July 2022

Photography courtesy of West Green Opera

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