Royal Opera House, 2015
David McVicar, Leah Hausman, Ivor Bolton, Erwin Schrott, Sophie Bevan, Stéphane Degout, Ellie Dehn, Kate Lindsey, Carlo Lepore, Krystian Adam, Louise Winter, Alasdair Elliott, Jeremy White, Robyn Allegra Parton
Royal Opera House Cinema Live - 5 October 2015
David McVicar's production of Le Nozze di Figaro has been in residence at the Royal Opera House since 2006 and, based on its successful 2015 revival broadcast live to cinemas, it's going to be a hard one to evict. Mozart's great masterpiece is by no means immune to reinvention and reinterpretation, but as the efforts to reinvigorate the last couple of productions of Don Giovanni in Covent Garden show (Zambello and Holten), you can't improve on perfection. Mozart's perfection, that is, just to be clear, but McVicar production for the Royal Opera House isn't too shabby either.
The secret to its success of McVicar's production is that it doesn't try to compete with Mozart and Da Ponte. That's a battle you are never going to win. McVicar's production looks like it is merely functional, traditional and period but there's a lot more to it than that. It's true that there's nothing particularly jarring in the set or costume design, (which is actually updated to around 1830, not that you'd notice), and nothing out of place that might distract your attention away from what it important in Le Nozze di Figaro. In no particular order since they are equally important in that they have to work together; the music, the comedy/drama and attention to the detail of the characterisation.
That all sounds pretty obvious, but it's even more important in a work like Le Nozze di Figaro, which relies on fully rounded characterisation of each one of its many individual characters. You can't really have one weaker that the rest as it will have a knock-on effect on how they interact with one another. True, some are more important to get right than others, and it's more noticeable when they have a greater impact on the key moments and scenes and in the main arias. The last thing you want to do however, particularly when you have good singers in these roles, is mess around with the characterisation. The strength of McVicar's production and the main reason it has longevity is in how he establishes those vital aspects of characterisation in such a way that a new cast can slot into it (and a revival director like Leah Housman) with minimal impact.
So much for characterisation, if one can really just separate it out from all the other elements. The comedy/drama aspect of The Marriage of Figaro however has to integrate and support the personalities and their interaction. Mozart and Da Ponte's collaboration towards this aspect is nothing short of miraculous. It's never any simple, single emotion either in Le Nozze di Figaro, but rather there's always a deeper, sometimes contrasting and sometimes hidden emotion underlying the surface one. Most evidently the contrast is made explicit in the conflict between the characters - one person's joy brings another one disappointment - and that what brings an edge to the comedy and inspires Mozart's dazzling and incredibly intricate ensembles. The conflicting emotions are there however even within an individual at any given moment, and it's there that you find the poignancy in those famous arias.
This is something you just don't mess around with. Mozart's ability here is such that it not only takes opera into a realm far beyond what the constraints of the previous Baroque tradition, but it's a measure of his genius that there are few composers since who can even come close to him in this regard. McVicar's production seems to be fully aware of this and helps bring out the depth of underlying humanity that lies behind every individual character and in every complex scene where they interact. Given that all of them are equally important to the overall balance and effect, you might still think that particular attention needs to be given nonetheless to Figaro and perhaps Susanna, but in practice, from experience, it would appear to be more important to get the characterisation of Count Almaviva right and establish the nature of his relationship with the Countess as the key link upon which all of the others revolve.
Don Giovanni is more open to interpretation - he can be a victim of his desires and uncontrollable impulses, he can be a sleazy seducer, or he can be a vile aggressor (and an infinite degree of nuance in-between) - but, perhaps because of the more overt class issues and because it is more of a comedy, Count Almaviva is less amenable to interpretation. In some ways he has to exhibit all the characteristics of Don Giovanni's personality simultaneously, not leaning too much towards one aspect or the other. He's not a bumbling fool, nor is he as clever and scheming as he would like to think he is either. As the Countess observes at one point, the Count is jealous only out of pride, which gives one clue to rather more complex motivations, but there is also his position to consider. He acts the way he does because he is a noble and, for better or worse, he has to live up to expectations of how a Count should behave. But he also has human feelings too, and feelings for his wife, even if he has forgotten what they once were.
I would certainly give McVicar credit for his direction here in how he makes all these varied aspects apparent in Count Almaviva's interaction with the other characters, but it's also brilliantly interpreted by Stéphane Degout for all the comic potential that lies within these conflicting, frustrating impulses, weighing and judging every gesture, expression and delivery perfectly. Degout's lyrical baritone is also ideal for this role, and, as ever, he is not just note perfect but dynamically expressive for all those diverse traits. The Countess is just as precisely balanced and even more expressive of her vulnerability in this work and in its interpretation here. Ellie Dehn however isn't quite up to the vocal demands that are required to bring it out, at least not in the first half of this performance. Despite possessing a gorgeous timbre and fullness of tone, her 'Porgi Amor' was weak and imprecise. it could have been nerves, as she fared much better after the interval in her 'Dove sono' and her 'Sull'aria' duet with Sophie Bevan. Bevan herself stepped in as Susanna at the last moment for an indisposed Anita Hartig, her bright performance fitting seamlessly into the production.
Erwin Schrott is, as usual, a law unto himself. He can appear far too casual and relaxed in a role, not really fitting in with the general tone, but his apparently off-hand manner suits Figaro here. By the same token the very relaxed delivery in his singing can appear rather mannered, but it's hard to fault his performance here. Cherubino is a great character, very much the youthful heart of the work, and he should always be a joy. Maybe not steal the show though, and if the role was written any longer it could well do that with someone like Kate Lindsey performing. As it is, Mozart and Da Ponte know just how much of a good thing to give us, so too does Kate Lindsay who is a complete joy every moment she is on the stage.
With this kind of singing and direction, characterisation as a key to the development, pace and tone of the comedy are all perfectly in place. Even in places where the singing isn't particularly strong, the tight knit production can mitigate against any negative impact that this might otherwise have on the work as a whole. Musical support and integration is no less vital and Ivor Bolton's conducting of the Royal Opera House orchestra has a lightness of touch that doesn't exaggerate or overstate the case. This is as close to perfection as any Le Nozze di Figaro gets, and by extension it's as good as opera gets.
Links: Royal Opera House