In the programme notes for his production of Le nozze di Figaro for The Royal Opera, director David McVicar writes: 'What guided my decision to set the action in the milieu of a French château in 1830? What has guided my direction of the singers away from traditional comedy to a more heartfelt, painful reading of the text? Well, as I said, the stage is my platform for expression. I prefer to leave these thoughts embedded within the act of performance. Watch, listen, participate.'
I watched – as I did during the previous run of McVicar's 2006 production – but I am still unsure why the action is set some fifty years after Beaumarchais' play and Mozart's opera were premiered. And I have yet to see a 'more heartfelt, painful reading of the text' than that of John Tomlinson's portrayal of Figaro some thirty years ago at the English National Opera. However, McVicar's direction is coherent, meaningful and a joy to experience.
Instead of starting the action after the Overture, McVicar prepares the plot during the opening music with a bunch of servants running around doing their jobs but also celebrating the liaison between Figaro and Susanna who – at that stage – seems to be a lowly servant rather than the Countess' personal maid and confidante. At the very end of the opera we see a similar lowly servant centre stage, so the cycle will continue.
In theory, the idea of sharp contrast between servants' quarters and aristocratic grandeur is excellent but the practicality of squeezing a whole act – that is, the first act, which takes place in Figaro's room – into a small space raised high above the stage can make communication between conductor and cast difficult. It is a credit to the great conductor Sir Charles Mackerras and his cast of excellent singers that – apart from occasional minor blemishes – the ensemble was excellent on opening night. Ironically, inaccuracies were more frequent from the orchestra pit, although not to the detriment of the performance as a whole.
Mackerras observes not 'only' the musical score but also the text. Cherubino's anxious moments of trying to disappear quickly and quietly (Act 2, Scene VII, Susanna and Cherubino's 'Aprite, presto, aprite') were delivered not only truly Allegro assai but also really pianissimo. Indeed, the anxiety of Susanna and Cherubino was evident in every single musical note. Mackerras created a masterly prolonged crescendo passage with a triumphant climax for the scene when Figaro, with the help of Susanna and the Countess, argues that it was he, not Cherubino, who jumped from the window of the Countess' room (Act 2, Scene XI). The same magical control over sustained crescendo was manifested later in a march (Marcia, Act 3, Scene XIII). Mackerras' orchestra does not accompany but actively participates and supports: thus Figaro's aria of despair ('Aprite un po' quegli occhi', Act 4, Scene VIII) showed the drama at its most intense. Throughout the opera the set arias were delivered with melodic embellishments which Mackerras has been advocating for many decades. (His chapter on Mozart in Nancy Phelan's Charles Mackerras: a musicians' musician shows his thoughts on the subject.)
Ann Murray, as Marcellina, is wonderful luxury casting; Marcellinas of her stature are rare. Although his performance of Bartolo's revenge aria ('La Vendetta', Act 1, Scene III) was more beautiful than revengeful, Robert Lloyd is another great singer in a so-called small role. Robin Leggate (Don Basilio) and Donald Maxwell (Antonio) complete the list of highly experienced principal singers in smaller roles.
All principal singers were excellent, well cast and well matched in ensemble. For me, nevertheless, Anna Bonitatibus (Cherubino) was a particular revelation with her scale of dynamics and tone colour. However, this was an evening about Figaro (Ildebrando d'Arcangelo), Susanna (Alexandra Kurzak), Count Almaviva (Peter Mattei in his Royal Opera debut) and Countess Almaviva (Barbara Frittoli) and – during the performance – I felt I was participating in their lives rather than passively watching. Surely this is the ultimate of what one can expect from an opera performance.
By Agnes Kory
Le nozze di Figaro will be broadcast live on Wednesday 16 July at 7pm on the BP Summer Big Screens in Trafalgar Square and Canary Wharf, as well as on several other screens around the UK.