sat 25/11/2017

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera | reviews, news & interviews

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera

Le nozze di Figaro, Royal Opera

Servants outshine nobles in a hard-pressed revival of opera's greatest comedy

A not quite happy wedding: Luca Pisaroni as Figaro and Lucy Crowe as Susanna in Act ThreeAll images ROH/Mark Douet

Revivals, especially at Covent Garden, too often wrong-foot high expectations. This one should have shone, with two known treasures among the cast (Lucy Crowe and Luca Pisaroni), an experienced Mozart conductor in John Eliot Gardiner and a handsome-enough David McVicar production supervised by its original director (sorry, “Sir John” might slip off the tongue, "Sir David" does not; but when was the honours system ever logical?) Yet while Michael Grandage’s profoundly human Glyndebourne Figaro dazzled as well on tour as at its opening and, by all accounts, in this year’s festival, too much of the love, warmth and cohesion were missing here.

The ensemble needs to be as near perfect as it can be. Here the Almavivas were outshone by their servants – seriously so in the charisma bypass of Christopher Maltman’s Count. Character might have been loaned him by the long hair and moustache of Grandage’s late Sixties hipster, but that wouldn’t have concealed the premature roughening of the voice which left Gardiner and the orchestra to provide focused fury in his vengeance aria.

Maria Bengtsson and Christopher Maltman in the Royal Opera FigaroMaria Bengtsson (pictured right with Maltman) rose to her big number, "Dove sono", with warm soft singing and a radiant top, but it felt by comparison hard-pressed in Gardiner’s authentic-style approach – Act Two’s “Porgi, amor” even more so – and despite aristocratic bearing her tendency, like Maltman, to sing under the note in sometimes listless recitative and the often cloudy sound reduced her impact. Slightly flat of voice, too, was Renata Pokupić’s low-impact Cherubino, though she/he had one good stage moment, when Susanna and the music fizz to get the boy out of an awkward situation and he’s rigid with terror.

Lucy Crowe, my singer of the year so far for her sublime Handel in Göttingen, threw the book of tricks at Susanna, as if not quite trusting the production: too much hand-waving and flouncing at first was pulled into focus for the disciplined and resourceful servant she needs to be in the second and third acts. Vocally she coloured so much so beautifully: I’m glad Gardiner allowed her and not the Countess the upper line in the Act Two trio, and by that stage the charm had really begun to work with the music-theatre number to which Susanna dresses up Cherubino (how could anyone with half an ear think this weak, as many commentators have?) Again, though, Gardiner’s unyielding conducting failed to let the ineffable garden serenade breathe as it should, though he did give Crowe licence for one golden note of pure ecstasy, the last long F.

Lucy Crowe and Luca Pisaroni in the Royal Opera FigaroBy that stage Luca Pisaroni (pictured left with Crowe) - already proven a finer servant than his master in Glyndebourne's 2010 Don Giovanni - had also struck warmth with his relatively monochrome but handsome bass-baritone. Thank goodness these two's last-minute role play livened up the final masquerade, stone dead up to this point in the weakest act visually of McVicar’s otherwise stylish post-Napoleonic setting. Their opening duets established the role of anger and distress in the true partnership that’s already there in Mozart’s instant dramatic miracle.

The imposing presences of Helene Schneiderman’s randy Marcellina, Carlos Chausson’s fulminating Bartolo and Jean-Paul Fouchécourt’s camp music-master should have got more genuine laughs – and this time I’d have welcomed Marcellina’s Act Four aria, cut as usual – but the production made them try too hard (again, I think of the equivalent scenes at Glyndebourne and sigh). 

If only Gardiner had unwound to cast a rosy glow over Figaro’s reconciliation with his unexpected parents in the great Sextet. His overture fizzed, with bright brass – not once did I look at the superfluous business on stage – and there were plenty of illuminating orchestral details: the sly violas as the Count uncovers Cherubino, the string bristlings in the Act Two finale, the accents of the Fandango which made up for the lack of dance on stage. Yet, though undeserving of the loud curtain-call booing behind me - no one should be subjected to that - he didn’t seem to be in perfect sympathy with the singers. The glowing humanity that should surround each and every figure in the greatest operatic comedy of all time only fitfully glimmered.

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