Luperi, Mario


FintaWolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, 2012 | Jérémie Rhorer, Richard Brunel, Paulo Szot, Malin Byström, Patricia Petibon, Kyle Ketelsen, Kate Lindsey, Anna Maria Panzarella, Mario Luperi, John Graham-Hall, Emanuele Giannino, Mari Eriksmoen, René Schirrer | Aix-en-Provence - 12 July 2012

In all my time watching opera I don’t think I’ve ever seen a bad production of The Marriage of Figaro. No matter how familiar the Mozart’s score is, no matter how well known all the little twists and quirks of Da Ponte’s libretto, the opera is always simply just a delight - dazzling, witty, virtuoso, it’s simply one of the greatest works of opera. That will always be the case no matter what kind of production it’s given, whether period or modern-day, traditional or experimental, and that in my experience always comes through even if the singing isn’t of the very highest standard. The production of Le Nozze di Figaro for the 2012 Aix-en-Provence festival, for example, combines a modern staging with a fresh light touch in the musical direction which finds an appropriate rhythm for the comic situations that entertains and delights even if the singing doesn’t always come up to the mark.

Richard Brunel’s production updates the action from the mansion of the libidinous Conte di Almaviva to the modern-day office of the Count’s legal practice. This changes the social and class satire context of the original work where he is attempting to seduce his wife’s maid Susanna before she is married to Figaro, making it more a case of sexual harassment in the workplace against a female employee. That at least is a situation more recognisable for a modern audience who might not have heard of ‘droit du seigneur‘ (which is actually called the ‘le droit de cuissage‘ in French), but in a work that had already stripped away most of the revolutionary class satire from Beaumarchais’ original controversial drama, it doesn’t greatly alter - or indeed add to - the situational comedy of the relationships between men and women that is the focus of the actual opera. It is interesting however to see those situations enacted in an office environment, Susanna and Figaro’s forthcoming marriage celebrated as an office romance by their colleagues amid the shredders and photocopiers, even if their employer offering them a back-office room behind the filing cabinets to set up their marital bed doesn’t quite fit into that concept quite so well.

Otherwise, Brunel’s production works quite well in this universally recognisable modern-day environment. In this office, a smart-suited Figaro is Almaviva’s junior law secretary and Cherubino is the junior office boy (looking uncannily, whether intentionally or not, like Gareth from the TV comedy series ‘The Office’). Office politics play a part in the everyday life of the employees and there is some friction between Susanna and one of the older ladies employed there, Marcellina, which descends into a cat fight where they end up throwing ladies underwear at each other - for some reason. The legal practice also works well with the judicial case taken out by Bartolo and Marcellina against Figaro, as well as providing an appropriate occupation where Almaviva has a responsibility to behave in a manner that is in accordance with his position. Chantal Thomas’ stage set moves fluidly then between each of the locations, between the office, the store room and the bedroom with its siderooms, giving you a good cross-section view of events even if the actual layout and configuration isn’t the neatest for the comedy that is enacted between them.

If the dramatic and musical qualities of Le Nozze di Figaro make it somewhat foolproof as a brilliant and dazzlingly witty entertainment, it’s not however immune to weak casting in the singing roles. The main roles here at the 2012 Aix production are mostly fine, some of them good, but it’s fortunate that Jérémie Rhorer conducts the Le Cercle de l’Harmonie with a lightness and delicacy, as most would be drowned out by the usual full orchestral arrangement. If the musical accompaniment is bright and perky, the acting and the passions aren’t fully conveyed with the necessary abandon in the relatively lightweight singing of the majority of the cast. Kyle Ketelsen’s Figaro is the best here, a strong and confident baritone who seems to fit into the modern-day office role for his character perfectly. Paulo Szot’s Almaviva also looks the part. He’s not quite the fearful an employer you would expect the Count to be, but just as the Count isn’t entirely sure of his position in the enlightened times of the original period of the work, so too the lawyer - or magistrate - Almaviva is unsure how far he can push his attentions here as an employer for fear of being brought up before a tribunal for harassment. Szot gets this across and sings well, and if he doesn’t have the necessary weight for the role, it’s the right size of voice for this particular production as a whole.

The same could be said of Kate Lindsey’s Cherubino. Her ‘Voi che sapete‘ is sung well enough, and if it isn’t the showiest display of singing nor as impassioned as it could be, you could put that down to the relatively youthful naivety of the character. Still, it lacks the kind of impact you would expect in the singing, although the role is delightfully played for its comic potential. If Patricia Petibon is also not exactly what you expect from a traditional Susanna, again rather lighter and more naturally toned without the usual operatic mannerisms, she does however in this way make the role her own. Personally, I found Anna Maria Panzarella disappointing as Marcellina. She’s a fabulous singer, powerful in her Baroque opera roles, but here the role of Marcellina didn’t seem a good fit for her talents. It’s not easy to make any such excuses for Malin Byström, who just didn’t have a voice with the range or colour necessary to convey the emotional journey of the Countess, singing without any real conviction or feeling for the role. Her ‘Porgi amor‘ and ‘Sull’aria‘ duet with Susanna are sadly thrown away, which is a real pity.

Yet, Le Nozze di Figaro still survives these weaknesses. The stage design is a little cold and, other than subverting the happy ending with the suggestion that a leopard can’t change its spots and that Almaviva has already turned to his old philandering ways, the concept doesn’t really add anything particularly new to the work.  The set is at least lovely to look at and it functions quite well.  Likewise, if the singing performances don’t deliver all the verve and energy you might like with this opera, it’s made up for by the precise tempo and delicate playing of the orchestra which brings out plenty of detail in the arrangements. The production reviewed here was viewed via Internet streaming and is currently still available for viewing on the ARTE WebLive site.

DestinoGiuseppe Verdi - La Forza del Destino

Opéra National de Paris, 2011 | Philippe Jordan, Jean-Claude Auvray, Mario Luperi, Violeta Urmana, Vladimir Stoyanov, Marcelo Álvarez, Nadia Krasteva, Kwangchul Youn, Nicola Alaimo, Nona Javakhidze, Christophe Fel, Rodolphe Briand, François Lis | Opéra Bastille, Paris (via Internet streaming) 8 December 2011

Verdi’s Il Forza del Destino is one of those fascinating mature works by the composer – along with Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera – which draw on the best elements from the composer’s earlier work in terms of melody, drive, pacing and plotting, but which have the benefit of a little more complexity in the orchestration, hinting at the greatness of the later final opera compositions – Don Carlos, Aida, Otello and Falstaff. The characters in La Forza del Destino, like the other works from this period, are somewhat limited by the conventionality of the melodramatic plotline, but Verdi’s score hints that there are other depths that can be drawn from the work. Consequently it’s a work that requires a little more thought given to the staging and a cast of performers who have the ability not only to meet the singing demands, but be able to give something to the acting. The direction of the current production for the Opéra National de Paris unfortunately doesn’t quite live up to those challenges, but that doesn’t prevent their La Forza del Destino from being any less brilliant musically.

I’m not sure it helps at all to displace the opera’s famous Overture, but it’s become something of a convention now (and not just here, but also recently in the Amsterdam production of Les Vêpres Siciliennes) and here it’s delayed until after the first act. The Overture of La Forza del Destino is now so familiar that it can be easy to forget that it has a dramatic function, and it’s the contention of Philippe Jordan, the musical director of the production, that it works better in that context as an introduction to the opera’s themes following Act 1, which is really just a prologue. Whether that’s the case or not is debatable, but what is not in question is just how impressively it is delivered. The filmed recording of the production, broadcast in French cinemas and available for Internet streaming from the Paris Opera web site, demonstrates Jordan’s controlled and precise direction of the Overture and confirms my belief from recent visits (Lulu, Tannhäuser) that the Paris Orchestra is one of the best in the world at the moment. The same musical intelligence and virtuosity is evident not just in the Overture, but throughout this production.

Destin

While the staging and the performances of a strong cast are more than adequate, they aren’t given anything much to do in a storyline that doesn’t quite deserve the beauty and intelligence of Verdi’s score, which is moving away from the convenienze of Italian opera and the yoke of the cabaletta towards a purer musical form of dramatic expression. That’s the case with most of the composer’s melodramas during this period, where there are moments of greatness and brilliance, but overall there isn’t an entirely satisfactory match between content and the growing confidence and complexity of Verdi’s musical arrangements. The religious themes, the question of honour and duty and the fighting of a duel remind one of Stiffelio, while the music and Spanish setting tug more in the direction of Don Carlos.

Despite some of the superficial similarities in the outline, La Forza del Destino is a Verdi opera that is far beyond the straightforward dramatic plotting of a work like Stiffelio. The religious and philosophical questions behind La Forza del Destino are, like the title itself (The Force of Destiny), rather more allusive for a Verdi opera, most of which are named directly after its principal character (Oberto, Rigoletto, Don Carlo) or an historical event (Il Battaglia di Legnano, Les Vêpres Siciliennes). It’s a title that, particularly in the context of the religious themes of the work, got Verdi into trouble with the censor, the opera indeed seeming to consider the power of destiny and fate and man’s attempts to control it through war, debts of honour or religious observance. Those seemingly subsidiary elements of the opera – Preziosilla, the fortune teller, Melitone, the monk and the soldiers going to war – are in the end just as important, if not more so, than the melodrama of Leonora, Don Alvaro and Don Carlo di Vargas. Where do the common people, torn between sinning and God, asked to take part in these wars, fit into the greater scheme of things?

Destin

As such, it should be possible for an innovative director to make something of those contradictions and the darker undercurrents in the score or the libretto as with Tcherniakov for Macbeth, or Christof Loy for Les Vêpres Siciliennes, but Jean-Claude Auvray’s production doesn’t attempt anything quite as radical. It’s not unusual for directors to update the older historical periods of Verdi operas to the composer’s own time and align the revolutionary elements of the plots with the struggle for the reunification of Italy, the Risorgmiento, and that’s the case here, but the Viva V.E.R.D.I. (“Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re D’Italia”) slogans and flag-waving fit awkwardly and confusingly with the Spanish setting of the opera. The religiously sparse and ascetic sets however make the environment less concrete, allowing the wider dimension of the opera’s themes to be applied, where the backdrops, like the changes and whims of fate, are fluid, temporary and changeable, capable of being rolled-up and spirited away at a moment’s notice.

Somehow however – and it’s not necessarily a fault with the direction, since the opera itself is imperfect in this respect – the main characters lack substance within such an environment, caught up in extraordinary coincidences and twists of fate. It’s hard therefore to make that in any way realistic, despite the best efforts of Verdi’s score, the outstanding performance of it by the Paris Opera orchestra, and the generally fine singing of a strong cast. Marcelo Álvarez demonstrates why he is one of the most sought-after and foremost Verdi tenors at the moment, a fiery Don Alvaro, but one who embodies a sense of conflict and honour in his struggle with the cruel twists of fate that occur. Violeta Urmana also seems to be the Verdi soprano of choice at the moment, but isn’t always the most versatile of singers or the best of actresses. She has some fine moments here and is generally impressive, but she clearly struggles with the high notes in places and it’s by no means a distinguished performance. There’s good solid support however from Vladimir Stoyanov as Don Carlo, Nadia Krasteva as Preziosilla, Kwangchul Youn as Padre Guardiano and Nicola Alaimo as Brother Melitone – all of which are enough to make this a solid and entertaining La Forza del Destino, even if it is somewhat lacking in adventure.

The Opéra National de Paris’ La Forza del Destino is available for viewing on their website until February 2012.