Mozart on the lake makes for a magical evening.
Last year uncertainty over COVID-19 led West Green House to hold its main performances outside on a stage that had been built out from the small island at the centre of its lake. The lakeside where people normally picnicked thus doubled as the ‘auditorium’ as several marquees were erected, and the result was so successful that the venue decided to stick with the new arrangement.
If last year the model was established hastily and through necessity, this year with more time to plan it has been refined quite considerably. The four marquees have given way to two larger ones, one from which people can both watch the opera and dine in the interval, and the other comprising tiered seating for those who picnic elsewhere in the grounds.
Next year the layout may develop even further, and if West Green House Opera has evolved a lot in the last decade this has been mirrored in its productions of Le nozze di Figaro. The last time the opera appeared at the venue in 2015, then as now directed by Richard Studer and conducted by Jonathan Lyness, it was in its Green Theatre. This lay on the lawn next to West Green House itself, and the English language production felt pared down in every way with just sixteen in the orchestra, and no chorus or surtitles. The immediacy and vitality that this approach brought was the making of the version in its own right, but seven years on and the new format has enabled Studer to take his ambitions for the piece to a whole new level.
The set, which sees the orchestra on stage with the performers, reveals attractive green walls upon which hang paintings that range from Barbara Kraft’s posthumous picture of Mozart to John Singer Sargent’s Portrait of Madame X. This sets the tone for a staging that seems to place the action at some point in the 20th century, with Dr Bartolo’s 60s clothes and curtains hairstyle rubbing shoulders with more traditional costumes. While Studer’s 2015 production set all of the action in the same space so that Figaro and Susanna’s and the Countess’ rooms were one and the same, here he presents three distinct rooms that are delineated via skeleton cubes so there are no walls to obstruct views. Acts I and II see Figaro and Susanna’s room in the centre with the Countess’ on one side and the Count’s on the other, exactly as is described in the first scene. The fact we can see all three areas means that before the Count makes his appearance in Act II we witness him in his own room receiving the letter that Figaro orchestrated. The layout is not always adhered to literally as the Count subsequently arrives in the Countess’ room by coming from Susanna’s when strictly it should be she who retreats to and returns from it, but the idea of there being a house that people can move through is rendered very strongly.
“…West Green House Opera has evolved a lot in the last decade…”
The dynamic is excellent as there is a tightness in the way in which the characters move around a designated square (i.e. one of the rooms). This really helps to bring out the humour in, for example, the Act I scene where the various characters hide and are revealed. Because the performance is outside the singers are miked, but this allows them to move around the square quite freely because they do not have to be facing the front at every moment. To enter the stage all of the performers must cross a bridge to the island, and it is a delight to see the way in which they stay in character as they do so. While still in the midst of the scene in which the Count discovers Cherubino, we see Figaro ushering the servants across it as he readies them to thank their master for having abolished the droit du seigneur. Prior to this he sings ‘Se vuol ballare signor contino’ supposedly to the Count by holding up one of his jackets, and he continues to address this after the aria has finished and he crosses the bridge.
Like Studer’s 2015 production, this version marks the Count out as an isolated figure who really has no one on his side. In 2015 this was most noticeable in the Septet that ends Act II that frequently pitted Susanna, Figaro and the Countess against Marcellina, Doctor Bartolo and Don Basilio, with the Count left all on his own. This production largely does the same but introduces more variation to render the point more subtly. Similarly, amidst the general rejoicing at the end the Countess essentially leaves the Count alone, although again there is more nuance than the bold gesture that she offered up in 2015. The Count is brilliantly sung and acted by Nicholas Morris, and he seems genuinely upset and fearful at the thought of ‘losing’ Susanna in ‘Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro’. Given his behaviour, and the fact he has a wife, we may not be overly sympathetic towards him, but we perhaps feel a little for someone who has to live with his own obvious flaws.
In fact, for all the dynamism of the production as a whole, many of the characters are rendered quite subtly. Jacobo Ochoa has enough of a ‘cheeky chappy’ persona to command the stage as Figaro, but when he believes Susanna is unfaithful he does not respond with a stereotypical alpha male anger, but rather crumbles mortified at his mother’s feet. When he realises the truth and plays games with her, she in turn collapses in tears at the thought he is untrue. Lorena Paz Nieto is outstanding in this role as her soprano is clear and bright, her gestures focused and her dancing strong. Angharad Lyddon is an excellent Cherubino, whose performance of ‘Voi che sapete che cosa è amor’ is more assertive than dreamy but no less effective for that, while Galina Averina is simply a class act as the Countess. There are also superb performances from Jeni Bern as Marcellina, Trevor Eliot Bowes as Dr Bartolo, Rhodri Prys Jones as Don Basilio (and Don Curzio), Jennifer Clark as Barbarina and Mark Saberton as Antonio, who reprises his role from 2015.
Jonathan Lyness achieves both a sprightly and balanced sound from the orchestra. The playing is never rushed, but a strong pace is always upheld to the point that very few arias in the first half are even given time for applause afterwards. One of the delights of West Green House is the way in which the gardens are illuminated after dark. Under the old set-up, the lights could only be experienced after emerging from the opera, but now they form a backdrop to the second half’s action and their designs seem to have been modified since last year so that the colours blend better with what is happening on stage. With just the odd duck quacking and three Canada geese circling the stage at one point, this Le nozze di Figaro makes for yet another idyllic evening at West Green House Opera.
• West Green House Opera’s 2022 season runs until 31 July. For further details of all events, including a production of L’elisir d’amore, and tickets visit its website.