Mozart and Da Ponte’s Le Nozze di Figaro at the Bayerische Staatsoper

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Le Nozze di Figaro: Jürgen Rose's set. From the premiere on June 30, 1997. Photo Wilfried Hösl.

Le Nozze di Figaro: Jürgen Rose's set. From the premiere on June 30, 1997. Photo Wilfried Hösl.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Nationaltheater
Sunday, March 7, 2010

Mozart/Da Ponte, Le Nozze di Figaro

Conductor – Juraj Valcuha
Stage Director – Dieter Dorn
Set and Costumes – Jürgen Rose
Light – Max Keller
Dramaturg – Hans-Joachim Rückhäberle
Chorus Director – Andrés Máspero

Il Conte di Almaviva – Michael Volle
La Contessa di Almaviva – Barbara Frittoli
Cherubino – Kate Lindsey
Figaro – Erwin Schrott
Susanna – Laura Tatulescu
Bartolo – Christoph Stephinger
Marcellina – Heike Grötzinger
Basilio – Ulrich Reß
Don Curzio – Kevin Conners
Antonio – Alfred Kuhn
Barbarina – Elena Tsallagova

Bayerisches Staatsorchester
Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper

Many of my most memorable early operatic experiences came from the Bayerische Staatsoper, either from when I was a student or a somewhat underoccupied summer intern in public relations. It’s been all too long since my last visit, not to mention my last look at the Aigina pediments or the great Dürers in the Alte Pinakothek. In operatic terms the work of the Staatsoper is very much on this level. Hence, I’ll not soon forget this three-day orgy, which began with a fine Nozze di Figaro, continued with Donizetti’s Roberto Devereux with none other than Edita Gruberova as Elisabetta, and concluded with an important premiere, Peter Eötvös’ and Albert Ostermaier’s Die Tragödie des Teufels, an impeccable performance in a spectacular staging.

The acoustics of this distinguished theater, slightly dry, in traditional opera house style, are revealing, both from the stage and the pit, even ruthessly so at times. From the Parkett, singers sound remarkably present, and conductors have exceptional control over the sound of the excellent Bayerisches Staatsorchester, as the difference between Juraj Valcuha’s Mozart and Friederich Haider’s Donizetti made clear. Since Die Tragödie des Teufels involves two orchestras, one positioned over and behind the stage, as well as considerable electronic components, which mostly emanate from expertly managed transducers in the ceiling, it hardly bears comparison, although it shows how the contemporary Staatsoper can take advantage of a premiere to reinvent its acoustical properties.

This notice will concern Le Nozze di Figaro, in the production of Dieter Dorn, a hugely influential figure in theater, both Munich and in Germany at large, as director of the Bayerischen Staatsschauspiel. He came there via Leipzig and Berlin, bringing a bracing Saxon and East German consciousness to luxurious Bavaria. I’ve written much of the ups and downs of his production of Tristan und Isolde at the Met, and the admirers (of which I am one) and detractors of that production will recognize his and Jürgen Rose’s (his favorite scenic collaborator) white perspective box in this Figaro. The room intended for Figaro and his bride, “the best room in the chateau” are pure white boxes, disfigured only by dirty corners below the ceiling. And this basic design, not confined to the third act, as in Tristan, persists from beginning to end. As a man based in theatre, Dorn takes up the relation of Mozart and Da Ponte’s opera to their source, Beaumarchais’ play, Les noces de Figaro, ou la journée folle. We have the Viennese censors to thank for much of the humanity, which has proven so appealing in the opera, through the 20th century at least. They would not allow a nobleman to be depicted as such a lecherous beast, or his Countess to be so easily drawn to an affair with an adolescent page, Cherubino. Dorn has decided to undo their work and show us the naked truth about life chez Almiviva. Hence the supremely intelligent baritone, Michael Volle, lends his dark, intensely masculine voice and great range of nuance to a portrayal of the Count as a lecherous brute. There is no doubt that Volle is as great a singer and interpreter as the rather similar Paul Schoeffler, and it is clear that he could manage an exquisitely nuanced Count. Although we may lose something in the brutishness of Dorn’s Count, who simply lusts after Susanna, constantly ready to rape her, the Count becomes the central figure in this production, and the central scene is his tortured struggle with his desires and the contradictions in his relationship with his household. As one might expect, this is a “thorny” production, intent on creating a synthesis between Beaumarchais’s play and its operatic progeny.

In order to bring the dramatic and psychological elements to the fore, there was less cutting of recits than is usual and Dorn’s own dramatic pauses, long silences at the beginning of scenes and within them, stress drama over musical flow. (For example, the Count’s recitative in the first scene of Act Three begins with his long, silent brooding, turning the scene into a powerful moment of self-examination.) Hence, the overall tone of this production is not the continuous flow of a conventional production, but that of an unfolding chain of events, with starts and stops, hesitations, reflections, and surprises. The old-school opera-goer, who has been loyally attending Figaro at the Met for the past generation or two, will find this unsettling, but Figaro, obviously, given its psychological and social import, is as worth taking seriously as any musical drama. Mozart surely felt as keenly as Da Ponte the conflicts of romantic urges and loyalties.

The Count in this production is a true swine, driven, when not by concupiscence, by an urge for power and control over the other members of his household and the comfort the ensuing order brings, not to mention his hatred of his rivals, Cherubino and Figaro, and a passionate vengefulness of the pettiest sort. More than in any other production I’ve seen, the Count wears no clothes. Even after his third act soliloquy, when he realizes that his methods are not working, he continues to be motivated by his own ugly emotions. It is greatly to Michael Volle’s credit that we do not find his Count unbearably repulsive.

But, while the Count may be the lynch-pin of the action, he is not alone. Figaro, Susanna, the Countess, and Cherubino are all vividly characterized by master singers, and the Marcellina-Don Bartolo-Don Basilio axis are supported by especially strong motivation and characterization. Erwin Schrott, handsome as ever in voice and appearance has his own issues of control. His discovery of his parents mark a real turning-point for him, doing him as much good as years on the couch. The American soprano, Laura Tatulescu, sang a thoroughly American, no-nonsense Susanna, who sets about her work of restoring order without illusion or innocence. She is often enough more than a trifle prickly. Tatulescu’s clear, bright voice could summon richer tones when needed, and she executed Mozart’s music with strong phrasing and nuanced color. Barbara Frittoli brought a touching sense of loneliness and injury to her Countess, who was also able to enter the fray with energy and a sense of fun. She concludes “Dove sono” collapsed on the floor, showing the full dimension of her depression in a posture assumed by the other characters, when they reach their nadir. Her voice has never sounded better, although her wide vibrato proved distracting in her first bars. It didn’t take her long to tame it, moulding it into her phrasing, vocaL color, and expression with singular canniness. She has seldom sounded better, even though the directness and clarity of the Staatsoper acoustic function like a magnifying glass for any flaws. Cherubino was sung by Kate Lindsey, whose career has blossomed so impressively in the last few years. (I still remember vividly her magnificent singing at Tanglewood in 2008 in Berlioz, Harbison, and Carter—powerful evidence of her versatility) Her Cherubino was underplayed, if anything, free from the broad comedy which mars so many modern characterizations, and not without a basic gentlemanliness and dignity. (The Countess takes Cherubino relatively seriously and finds his attentions far from unwelcome.) Her voice was bright and forward, displaying little chest color in the lower registers. Ms. Lindsey used her tall, slender frame to great effect, as she tried to hide in the scant furnishings of Jürgen Rose’s spartan set, introducing a telling element of absurdity into her performance. Heike Grötzinger as Marcellina gave a vivid comic turn as a femme d’un certain age on the hunt for a younger man, and Christoph Stephinger was an amusing Bartolo. Ulrich Reß, however, brought the house down with Basilio’s tale of his “manto d’asino,” a vocal and dramatic tour de force.

Juraj Valcuha is a young Slovak conductor, trained in Bratislava, who appears to be much in demand in Germany and Italy. His tempi tended to breadth, and his textures to amplitude and weight, in spite of the reduced strings, absence of doubling in the winds, and the limpid acoustics of the hall. He gave the woodwinds a strong presence, although his string sound was full and not especially transparent. His treatment of the score was full of interesting personal insights in phrasing and detail from the inner voices, and these were mostly free from any sense of the arbitrary. Valcuha made the most of rests and pauses, not only because of his personal view of the score, but to support the dramatic rhythms of Dorn’s production.

Conservative audience members, especially from America, might resist Dorn and Rose’s production as Regieoper. Indeed some of the musical flow we have become accustomed to has been sacrificed. Still, if any opera deserves a concentrated, serious representation of its theatrical values, it is Figaro, and one cannot deny that Dorn has kept a penetrating, unflinching eye on da Ponte’s treatment of Beaumarchais, even reaching back to the spirit of the original, perhaps to restore some of what the librettist and composer originally had in mind.

In the concluding night scene in Almaviva’s garden, Rose and Dorn deprive us of the familiar nocturnal atmosphere, as the bare set remained as white as ever. Here, the lighting makes the characters dark, as they grope about for self-understanding, balance, and forgiveness, not to mention each other. In order to impair the characters’ physical vision and make it possible for them to do their groping “in the dark,’ a capacious drop cloth descended on the characters, under which they moved about on all fours. While the lighting effect was impressive and the metaphor telling, I can’t say that the device was entirely successful. There was certainly no beauty in it, and it had a certain awkwardness, as well as a hint of a cost-effective work-around. On the positive side, Valcuha’s choice of tempi throughout the finale seemed especially effective, clarifying the dramatic and musical structure and creating a satisfying sense of climax and resolution.

About Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.