The worn metaphor about the London buses is applicable here too.
After a wake of some weeks I happened to watch two Mozart operas
on consecutive evenings and, like the buses, they had both
been modernized past recognition. Transportation is the main
object of the buses and transportation in time seems to be
the overriding purpose with opera direction at the moment.
I don’t like to be an old Grumpy but I can’t avoid feeling
that some directors struggle at all costs to transport their
productions in all directions except the most obvious one:
to the time where they belong. I have enjoyed many productions
of this kind, both live and on DVD, many have been very inventive,
entertaining and – in some cases at least – perspective building.
Still, one serious objection remains: more often than not
one loses the purpose and intention of the original. I am
sure that it is all done with the aim of making a mossy story
comprehensible to today’s audiences since the music is of
a calibre that would make it a shame if it sank into oblivion.
Naturally this intention is laudable but the question remains:
how much more intelligible will the story and the conflicts
become by transporting it to the present time? Certainly
it clarifies eternal questions by putting them into the context
of our own times and society … but I still have my doubts.
Take the opera under consideration, Le nozze di Figaro, written
in 1786 and supposed to have some part in the outbreak of
the French Revolution a few years later. Beaumarchais’s play,
which was the basis for da Ponte’s libretto, was political
hot-stuff. Da Ponte removed much of its revolutionary tendency.
However the core conflict of the opera is that Count Almaviva
wants to reintroduce the ancient right of the feudal lord
to lie with the bride on the wedding night of his servants.
Enacted in modern times this will jar with most viewers,
who are well aware of promiscuity across the social layers
but would not normally associate this with historic tradition.
Played in 18th century setting this could serve
as a history lesson coupled with hearing the music alongside
sets and costumes that belong together. For jaded opera-goers
who have seen dozens of different production and know the
pre-conditions it poses no problems and it can be refreshing
once in a while. I don’t object to the practice in general – if
there is a rationale behind it.
This Figaro is sometimes heavily laboured in an over-the-top
way. It is also full of amusing details and we had many good
laughs, my wife and I, even though at the end we said almost
unanimously: “I can’t imagine this as the only version in
the DVD collection”. Many illogical somersaults rub shoulders
with brilliant ideas, crystal clear fresh observations mingle
with hard-to-understand “quick-wittedness”. Director Christoph
Marthaler sets the action in what I only afterwards realised
was “a somewhat surreal marriage bureau in which there are
weddings almost continually”. There are myriads of ideas
that make you wonder: Don Basilio seems to be a nervous wreck
from the beginning. This must be contagious because both
Marcellina and Bartolo are seriously affected towards the
end. There is a rostrum where some solos are performed like
lectures – an interesting contradiction since these solos
are in effect personal utterances, even internal monologues;
here they become public speeches. A miniature staircase is
placed on the floor and the actors frequently walk over it,
A stroke of genius is undoubtedly the introduction of a “recitativist”.
The director and the conductor considered it impossible to
retain the traditional harpsichordist or forte-pianist for
the dry recitatives. Instead they employed Jürg Kienberger
to be almost omnipresent on stage, accompanying or sometimes
only faintly indicating chords or just a single note. He
plays synth or any of a variety of instruments, including
in one recitative two bottles, partly filled with water,
in which he blew the requisite tone and then drank some of
the contents to achieve a new tone. Skilful in the bargain!
He also played a glass harmonica on two occasions as interludes.
In both cases these relate to Mozart songs roughly contemporaneous
with the opera. In one of them he also sang in tremendously
surefooted high falsetto.
Instead of making grievous cuts, which happens far too often
in “adapted” productions,
Marthaler and Cambreling have opted for the complete score.
They have included all the recitatives and have also inserted
the often rejected fourth act arias for Marcellina and Basilio.
Sylvain Cambreling, an experienced opera conductor, secures
fine playing from his orchestra. All through the performance
he chooses adroit tempos. There are no eccentricities here,
only an ideal basis for the singers to make the most of their
arias and ensembles. And they do. Just as on the other Mozart
DVD I mentioned initially, (Harnoncourt’s La finta giardiniera)
(see review), this production has a cast that both
vocally and visually are ideal for their parts. And they
are good actors! Lorenzo Regazzo as Figaro is a find: lively,
young-looking and equipped with a strong, steady bass-voice,
full of expression. All his arias are vocal high-points.
Peter Mattei’s lanky figure and aristocratic bearing make
him an ideal Count Almaviva. There are few baritones around
on the international circuit today who can equal his singing.
His baritone possesses great beauty and power when needed
and it is so well-equalized. It is also well contrasted with
Figaro’s blacker bass, which matters less on DVD than on
CD, where casting similar voices can sometimes cause problems.
Roland Bracht’s magnificently booming voice and expressive
acting also makes him a Bartolo to reckon with.
On the distaff side Christiane Oelze sings The Countess’s two arias
with dignity and great beauty and she is suitably sad for
most of the time. Heidi Grant Murphy is a glittering Susanna,
singing a lovely fourth act aria. Cherubino is notoriously
difficult to cast, requiring a gloriously-voiced singer who
must also be able to pass reasonably well as a teenage boy.
Christine Schäfer is definitely the most boyish Cherubino
I have ever encountered and it is indeed difficult to believe
that this isn’t a boy. To underline this wizardry in role-identification
she/he looks like Harry Potter – but sings like an angel.
The minor parts are also excellently cast with Helene Schneiderman
grabbing her few opportunities to show off. This she does
most conspicuously in her aria, where she bathes in the spotlight.
Burkhard Ulrich the Don Basilio, on the other hand, sings
his aria with microphone. The rest of the cast are also well
into their characters.
On musical grounds then there is no cause for complaint.
The production was also fresh and entertaining, but some
of the questions
of principle that I have posed still remain. I don’t mind
new thinking and fresh ideas but I don’t buy everything just
because it is new or fashionable.
I hope this review has whet the appetite or deterred readers, depending
on attitudes. Those who feel they can stomach a production
along these lines can safely invest. Sound and pictures are
first class, as is almost always the case nowadays.