Sun 29 Jul 2012
Wolfgang 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.