Why is Figaro measuring up to see if the bed will fit, when it’s already attached to the wall? What are sixteen servants doing apart from eavesdropping and mopping the floor? Why does Figaro and Susanna’s new room look more like Rigoletto’s sad little cave than the chamber of milady’s personal maid and milord’s valet? Why is Simon Keenlyside’s Count hamming it up so much that he threatens to spin off the stage? Above all, who on earth imagined that Christian Gerhaher would be suitable for the part of Figaro?
This David McVicar production from 2006 was always destined for umpteen revivals, and here’s the sixth, faithfully recreated by Thomas Guthrie. Tanya McCallin’s set, updating the action from an 18th-century Spanish castle to a 19th-century chateau depends a great deal on lighting for its impact, and here Paule Constable’s design lent elegance to the interior scenes and a sense of mystery to the external ones. Why feature the lighting? Because it was one of the few truly memorable aspects of this otherwise very ordinary production which had little or nothing to say beyond some rather tired clichés.
Fortunately the orchestral playing under John Eliot Gardiner had both the exuberance and pathos often lacking on the stage – apart from a couple of missed stage / pit connections, the playing had plenty of sparkling wit and drive. Joélle Harvey was a sympathetic, sweet-toned Susanna, with moments in her aria which brought Arleen Auger to mind – however, she had a tendency to bring her voice down to a very low level during recitatives, resulting in some phrases being lost. Christian Gerhaher did the same thing, and one had to wonder how audience members in the upper house managed to hear either of them at certain points. Gerhaher’s beautiful tone is unquestionable, but his avuncular demeanour is unsuited to Figaro, and he lacked verve where it was needed.
No shortage of verve from Simon Keenlyside’s Count; he last sang the role here in 1995, and although the voice has slightly worn, the stage presence and commitment are as remarkable as ever. At times it seemed that he was trying desperately to inject some much needed life into the proceedings, or as if he were portraying a man in thrall to exotic substances. The production does not help him much – where laid-on-thick irony is needed – as when the Count re-enters Rosina’s bedroom armed with door-breaking tools and declares that all is as he left it, when of course it is not, he barely muttered the phrase. Plenty of dramma, not much giocosa.
Much hype has been expended on the novel notion of having a male soprano sing Cherubino, and Kangmin Justin Kim has great stage presence and a very fine voice, but what was the point, given that the tone cannot replicate the richness of a mezzo-soprano, and there are plenty of very good ones around? Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s Basilio and Alasdair Elliott’s Curzio were more conventional castings, and all the better for it, with the latter showing just how to strengthen an ensemble.
Julia Kleiter’s Countess was not accorded the part’s customary dignity, in that instead of being discovered in her chamber with her lonely meditations on betrayal, she had to dash in as if that Springer spaniel (nice one, doggie) were at her heels. Her voice is distinguished but on this occasion not heard at its best owing to somewhat breathy production. Vocal and histrionic honours on the female side went to Diana Montague, whose Marcellina succeeded in being both conniving and sympathetic. What a pity that the delectable exchange between Susanna and Marcellina missed all its piquancy, sacrificing the perfect contrast between the enchanting interweaving of voices and the in-and-out business with the door, in favour of some silly faffing about with laundry and hangers-on.
Maurizio Muraro was a splendid Bartolo, making an ideal pairing with Montague, and Jeremy White a sonorous Antonio. Yaritza Véliz was a little too knowing for Barbarina, but hers is a very promising voice well suited to a future Susanna. Rebecca Hardwick and Angharad Rowlands were a delightful pair of bridesmaids, singing enchantingly through their ‘nervousness.’ The Royal Opera Chorus seemed a little muted on this occasion.
The fourth act set mainly consists of a few overturned bits of furniture and some scraggly tree trunks descended from on high – hardly the setting suggested by the music and libretto, but again the lighting compensates for much. That final reconciliation will always ‘melt sight’ as Peter Shaffer has it, but if you wanted to see a production which really altered your perceptions of Le nozze di Figaro, then that would have been at The Grange Festival.