Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro

Royal Opera

Royal Opera House, London, 12th May 2014 2 stars

Christine Rice as Carmen in Carmen © ROH / Catherine Ashmore 2013I like my Mozart the way I like my darts: precise. There are undoubtedly some operas in which the singers and conductor can get away with being ever-so-slightly sloppy; you know, the way a poorly filled Sloppy-Joe might be at a mediocre American diner. Le nozze di Figaro is decidedly not one of those operas. The masterpiece myth aside, in order for Figaro to work in performance there must be clarity of rhythm, robustness of sound, and above all an impeccable sense of style ever present; this revival, though there were some admirable moments, had none of these.

Now in its sixth reissue at the Royal Opera (does something unmagical happen after five?), David McVicar's traditional production has lost some of its charm. The production is set in the post-revolutionary 1830s (post the big revolution anyway), perhaps to downplay the social tension that Beaumarchais so eloquently wove into his plays. Unexpectedly, the chemisty between Alex Esposito's Figaro and Gerald Finley's Count was hardly the stuff to make revolutions; where was the subtle antipathy between them? Or at least the machinations of revolution eventually redeemed by peace and forgiveness? Lost amidst poor direction, one supposes; clearly, McVicar's current idea of a revolution is one where nothing revolutionary ever happens.

This is not to be unduly harsh: the opera needs more than just spectacularly contrasting sets to communicate a message of inequality and subjugation, especially to audiences attending the Royal Opera today. There is certainly no harm in updating a production for the sake of relevance once it has edged past its fifth revival.

Of course, in all fairness, one cannot simply blame the director for great opera failing as great theatre. David Syrus conducted throughout as though everyone in the audience had their hearing aides turned to low: not only was there little dynamic range within the orchestra, but the sense of progressive, smooth melody that characterizes most of the work was missing completely. Couple these with unfortunately common moments of disjointed tempi between the singers and the orchestra and there you have it: a mediocre Sloppy-Joe.

But it is not just the conductor's responsibility to lead; it is also the singer's, to either follow or lead better. On the whole, this group of aristocrats and their servants were a mismatched bunch. Alex Esposito sang a clean if somewhat overacted Figaro; Camilla Tilling's Susanna was often a breath of fresh air and comedic relief. Vocally Tilling was strongest towards the end, in her rendition of "Deh vieni non tardar,"which was paced well and showed her shimmering soprano at its best. Tilling's chemistry with Marie McLaughlin was excellent, and in her own right McLaughlin provided much verve to Marcellina, a role sadly too often overlooked. Her love/hate interest Bartolo was sung by Christophoros Stamboglis, whose powerful bass was both robust and sharp.

Rebecca Evans making her role debut as the Countess got off to a troubled start; "Porgi amor"is not an easy aria to sing but it felt as though Evans struggled to spin the sound correctly. Her voice has no issues being heard but what she makes up for in sound she loses in diction and style. She sparked a bit in the Act II finale and while her ornamentations throughout were appreciated and original on the whole I wasn't convinced until the end, when she finally forgave the Count with a beautifully soaring line of even, and fantastically colored sound. As her lustful husband, Gerald Finley was his usual bold, syrupy-voiced self. My recurring favorite of his is "Hai gia vinta la causa,"which he sings with a magnificent mix of tender feeling and vengeful arrogance.

Yet again however, for the second time I've seen her sing it, Anna Bonitatibus stole the show with her both touching and entertaining Cherubino. She was the only performer besides Finley who brought real style, verve and commitment to her performance. Her voice soars and is perfectly colored with lust.

Despite what is now a tired, historically vacuous and socially irrelevant staging, both Bonitatibus and Finley had a sense of aim, of sure precision; the only sentiment that redeemed what was unfortunately a very disappointing evening.

By Michael Migliore

Photos: Catherine Ashmore