Le Nozze di Figaro
Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte after Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beamarchais’ La folle journée, ou le mariage de Figaro
Opera Theatre, Sydney Opera House: Wednesday, 20 October 2010
Continues in Melbourne from November
Figaro – Shane Lowrencev
Susanna – Teresa La Rocca
Conte di Almaviva – José Carbó
Countessa di Almaviva – Amy Wilkinson
Cherubino – Dominica Matthews
Bartolo – Stephen Bennett
Marcellina – Jacqueline Dark
Basilio/Curzio – Kanen Breen
Barbarina – Claire Lyon
Antonio – Clifford Plumpton
Bridesmaid 1 – Katherine Wiles
Bridesmaid 2 – Margaret Plummer
Conductor – Anthony Legge
Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra
Opera Australia Chorus
Director – Neil Armfield
Designer – Dale Ferguson
Lighting Designer – Rory Dempster
I usually don’t like to pick favourites, but of the Mozart operas it’s hard to deny Le Nozze di Figaro. As such it has become familiar without becoming at all tired, and has probably sublimated a rather particular image of itself in my mind’s eye and ear. The story of love giving way to jealousy, and then despair, and finally forgiveness, under the roof of an aristo ripe for Revolution, is bound to develop a thin farcical crust, but it never seemed a straight comedy, let alone a farce, to me. The characters are so genuine, even the myriad of supporting roles are so strong, that it’s easy to sympathise with their harrowing trials. I see the opera more as the Orpheus and Eurydice story with a happy ending which makes sense. It also lovingly portrays the noble and logical humanist belief that (to paraphrase John F. Kennedy) it is not impossible for human beings to solve problems that they themselves created. No parts for any God or gods nor even Cupid here. This production, directed by Neil Armfield perhaps wasn’t exactly my idea of Figaro or quite sat on my sense of humour, but it did try some new things. Armfield does try to play it for laughs by filling the opera with over-the-top physical comedy, but he often risks hamminess. It is hard to keep up that kind of farce for over three hours and he doesn’t always succeed in creating dark comedy in putting a fluff of laughter on violent, frightening or dark situations. He never ruins the comedy intrinsic to the libretto or the music, in fact at his best moments he even compliments this by adding detail to the scene with subtler acting in the background.
Armfield and Dale Fergusson’s design for the set has a slap-dash feel, made up of odd pieces of second hand furniture and flea-market objects, but is simple and never feels cluttered. The curtain — really a dusty painter’s cloth — rises on Figaro and Susanna’s small room under construction. She irons a dress for the Contessa while he oversees the whole rest of the Conte’s staff who are helping to renovate the room. The room is a bit cramped, shoving the cast practically up to the footlights, and we can sympathise with Figaro’s anxiety over whether the wedding bed will fit. The acting is highly dynamic, even after Figaro and Susanna are left alone in their room, they cross the stage almost constantly, and really no one stops moving until they line up for the tutti at the end. In this first scene, the physical humour is more subtle, with nice touches such as Figaro placing Susanna’s foot to hold down the end of his measuring tape, and her gentle affectionate teasing giving the scene a natural feeling of domestic gaiety which suits the music well. Domestic and private enough that it feels like a real intrusion when Cherubino and then the Conte invite themselves in in the following scenes.
From here, as the stage fills up again, the physical acting becomes more slapstick. At times this tries to highlight the humour intrinsic to the libretto and the music. For example, Marcellina, in her Act I duet with her nemesis Susanna, makes stereotypically Italian, over-the-top hand gestures, and even vigourously tries to give Susanna the evil eye. At other times Armfield even adds physical humour where it isn’t necessarily implied by Mozart or da Ponte. In the Act II, when chaos descends on the Contessa’s bedroom as the Conte tries to discover who has been visiting his wife, he ends up taking a swing at Cherubino, who ducks, and hits Figaro instead. Later in Act III just before the wedding party, the Conte even more excessively violent at the end of his “Hai già vinta la causa!…Vendrò. mentr’io sospiro…” solo when he viciously destroys the croquembouche wedding cake. In the Act IV garden scene, even Susanna gets excessively violent when she kicks Figaro on the ground to punish his jealousy, which seems out of character. Again, in this scene, near the end of the opera when Susanna is still disguised as the Contessa but after Figaro has recognised his wife underneath, they make love bombastically while they know the Conte surveils from the bushes. When the Conte comes out, Figaro runs off with his pants around his legs. This does have the effect of making the Conte’s mortification at the end more intense, even if it’s a little frivolous. By contrast, the dance music in Act III’s wedding party accompanies an oddly static scene: the household merely assembles and poses in front of a wedding photographer for a group shot.
Of course the opera is comic and of course there is the ridiculous aspect to the situation, but its comedy is lighter and subtler than this. The humour is mostly verbal, very dry and witty. And then the music as a whole is so serious, the harmonies progressing right through the work continuously, if nonlinearly, with a very human sensibility at the same time surprising the ear with their fresh, rich chords. In this way, the music is like a great symphony, whole in itself and creating an entire world in a few rooms and garden of the Conte’s castle. Where the music is witty, it is thus quite striking. So introducing unrestrained physical humour throughout the opera is bound to come across as heavy-handed at times. At worse the actors were brought out of character or became stereotyped or caricatured and at its best the physical humour took the form of subtler acting that complimented da Ponte’s and Mozart’s sense of humour rather than smothering it.
Having said that, the cast delivered the quick witty dialogue in the recitative in a very sharp, dry and natural way, which proves they did not need to resort to overacting. The supporting piano continuo complimented this nicely, being highly ornamented, almost baroque, but playful, especially the silly falling run down the scale which accompanied Cherubino’s leap from the Contessa’s bedroom window.
While the emotional highs in this opera are stratospheric, the lows are deep, and the Conte, always oppressive, in this production comes across as particularly dark. He is at his worst in the Act II scenes in his wife’s bedroom, making his entrance in his riding clothes, brandishing a switch with which he’d no doubt been taking out his frustrations on his poor horse. The sinister way José Carbó incorporates the prop into his gestures, with the implied or at least threatened domestic violence, makes the whole scene tense, uncomfortable and distasteful, and certainly scary, even though he never carries out his threat. Amy Wilkinson makes for a very young Contessa, perhaps suggesting she’d been a teenage bride, with all the harrowing stories of history that dredges up, and an interpretation I hadn’t ever thought of. But of course she must still love the Conte at some level throughout the opera for the end to make any sense, so Armfield is playing with fire here. Wilkinson does well considering, at first backing away from her husband in fear as she is driven to lie to him, but then throwing herself between him and the closet door where Cherubino is hiding to protect the boy. It is satisfying when she finally slaps that blasted switch form the Conte’s hand. However he re-enters soon after with an axe (instead of the, in my opinion, more humorous hammer and pliers in the original stage direction). To me, the Conte here becomes too brutish, he becomes evil. It makes any dark humour associated with the Conte in later scenes insupportable and it is too difficult to suspend disbelief when the Contessa forgives him at the end.
This is a shame, because Carbó does so well with this last scene, when he finally realises he’s been an ass, his wife is guiltless and that she still loves him. In the garden, the whole cast of characters surrounds the Conte, asking his pardon on bent knee, though really disgusted with him, and when he refuses, the Contessa reveals herself in Susanna’s dress. The Conte is intensely mortified. Carbó is touching: the music pauses for a moment and finally he turns around to face his wife and sings “Contessa, perdono” so softly and without his previous false pride.
Teresa La Rocca was also remarkable, taking the role at short notice after Tiffany Speight’s indisposition, and rose to the occasion fitting right into the cast when I believe she wasn’t even an understudy for this season’s performance. Despite a massive difference in height between her and her Figaro (she barely came up to his chest), she turned this to their advantage and lost no stage presence to him. It was a sweet touch when she stood on the garden bench to kiss Figaro just before the curtain dropped. Her clear precise voice complemented Lowrencev’s rich deep bass nicely. Her recitative dialogue was particularly quick and witty, carrying through the momentum of the opera.
Lowrencev’s Figaro cut a fine figure as the tallest member of the cast, towering even over Carbó’s Conte. His voice was beautiful to listen to without grabbing undue attention in the septet in Act II. His acting was exuberant and often worked well in the spirit of the opera, but at times he overacted unnecessarily and was a bit hammy, for example, he would strike the furniture or the wall of the set with his hand to express frustration or elation. His voice and the music was already very expressive and I think Figaro would be cooler-headed than that.
Amy Wilkinson’s young Contessa was childlike at times, but managed to remain dignified, which would have been interesting had the Conte not been quite so evil and Cherubino more a little more charming. Her voice, rather soft in quality with some fragility, went well with La Rossa’s, the characters’ friendship coming across touchingly. Perhaps she lacked some depth in her long solo aria in Act III Scene 8, the almost delirious, free verse “E Susanna no vien…” leading into the moving “Dove sono i bei momenti”.
Domenica Mathews played her Cherubino almost as a Conte in training. She gave her character an earthy, masculine voice and all the boyish mannerisms, even sporting a sparse goatee in imitation of Figaro’s. Singing with the youthful Contessa, a relationship seems almost possible, except for Cherubino’s more obnoxious behaviour. Perhaps the character was too puerile at times, for example in Act I, Mathews shamelessly rubbed up against the Contessa’s dress as it lay on Susanna’s ironing board then did the same to the door to the Contessa’s bedroom.
Jaqueline Dark has a very powerful voice and put it to good effect in her domineering Marcellina. She showed good control, giving her voice a metallic edge in the first half of the opera while she plots against Figaro’s marriage, but dropping it later and singing more sonorously when she realises she’s on his side, even while remaining a touch overbearing.
Claire Lyon made a delightful Barbarina, running on in Act III as if she’d been itching to take part in the day’s larks, even if later to regret getting involved. She moved gracefully and used her whole body in her acting but was always restrained. It is not surprising Lyon has danced in the past too. Her voice was definite but never piercing. Kanen Breen proved himself versatile playing both Don Basilio as a somewhat stereotyped flamboyant gay music master, trying to grab the Conte’s attention, and Don Curzio as an old decrepit lawyer in a wheelchair.
The Welsh National Opera’s costumes were very effective. Figaro has a very well cut footman’s uniform, and is at times better dressed than the Conte. The Conte’s clothes are just the right degree of seediness (showing up in Susanna’s bedroom in Act I in underwear and a crimson velvet dressing gown) and sinisterness (the red riding garb in Act II and black coat embroidered down the front in Acts III and IV). The peasant clothes at the wedding celebration were particularly convincing, mostly long faun skirts and brightly coloured tops, simple but neat. Barberina’s costume complemented these well, being just slightly more elaborate and gaily coloured, tasteful blue and yellow and pinkish-red, giving the impression of an outfit pieced carefully together by a tasteful eye.
The Australian Opera and Ballet Orchestra was, as always, a treat to listen to. They are very precise and quite well balanced despite the infamous problems with their pit. Anthony Legge’s conducting was very sensitive and seemed to understand the music’s sensibility, while remaining sympathetic to the singers.
Under this fine music, I could hardly believe my ears at the number of people in the audience talking over the music. Not even just whispering between arias, which would be bad enough, but in some cases actually voiced comments between couples in the audience, over the opening bars of the overture, over loud bits, over the quietest parts of the most tender arias. It is hard to recommend an announcement before the start asking the audience not to talk over the carefully rehearsed music and break into others’ concentration, when it would nice nice to trust people not to be so rude, but perhaps it has come to that.
Despite these few problems, the music was a delight and the cast always seemed to have fun performing it.