Mozart's Barber Is Back In A Rousing Romp
Famed stage director and teacher Gotz Friedrich used to set his students a test: if any of them could describe the story of comic opera Le Nozze di Figaro in one go without mistakes, he would hand over a 20 Deutschmark note. As the story goes, he never had to pay.
Appearing at the Royal Opera House, Mozart’s convoluted creation portrays the amorous escapades of ten characters in a grand country house. Following on from his adventures in The Barber Of Seville, the eponymous beardtrimmer is now the valet to Count Almaviva and about to marry the Countess’s maid Susanna. When he’s not busy leching after the gardener’s daughter Barbarina, the Count wants to use his droit de seigneur to get into her underwear before Figaro can. Meanwhile, the Countess’s page Cherubino lusts after all three women and the scheming Marcellina is conspiring to force Figaro into abandoning Susanna and marrying her. It is fair to say that along the way more plans than people get laid with much of Figaro’s humour derived from seeing how those plans go spectacularly awry.
This version is the fifth revival of David McVicar’s 2006 production and his original Figaro, Uruguyan bass Erwin Schott, returns once again to the title role. He alone of the cast embodies the emphatic physical language typical of Mediterraneans; Italians communicate as much with their hands as with their mouths and Schott’s expressive and humorous gestures perfectly capture the non-verbal elements of a sometimes clumsy translation. Although too often played here as a hapless buffoon, this Figaro is a charismatic and cunning figure which Schott brings to life with a cheeky vibrancy.
There is much in Mozart’s music that is joyful to both heart and mind and there are beautiful arias end-to-end in Figaro’s three-hour-plus running time. The same though, could not be said for Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto. Some scenes are guilty of levels of self-indulgence rarely seen outside all-you-can-eat buffets, allowed to go on far too long with unnecessarily complicated toings and froings and not enough doings. There’s a sudden plot twist that even M. Night Shyamalan would be embarrassed about and the pace in the final act is a fraction of that in the first two. McVicar’s direction does the best it can with what it has to work with and, by and large, this is an entertaining romp.
American sopranos Ellie Dehn and Heather Engebretson make their Royal Opera debuts as the Countess and Barbarina respectively and their voices and acting both do credit to their secondary roles. As Susanna, Romanian soprano Anita Hartig strikes the right balance between outraged fiancée and Machiavellian machinator. Stephane Degout’s Count is an inch-perfect depiction of a man who leaves his thinking to his penis to his ongoing humiliation.
Alongside Schott’s acting, this production deserves praise for Tanya McCallin’s design. Paule Constabule’s crepuscular lighting adds buckets of atmosphere to the interior scenes while McCallin’s palazzo scenery is impressive in its spacious grandeur. The costumes — ranging from gowns to frock costs to servants’ outfits — are simply magnificent.
Down in the pit, conductor Ivor Bolton keeps the pace lively even during some of the more lengthy scenes and the Royal Opera Chorus are as rousing as ever. Figaro’s famous score is treated with deference and confidence and fans of Wolfgang Amadeus are unlikely to be disappointed.
Le Nozze di Figaro continues at the Royal Opera House until 14 October. Ticket availability can be found on the website. Londonist saw this opera on a complimentary ticket.
Last Updated 16 September 2015