Le nozze di Figaro – Opera buffa in four acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after Pierre-Augustin Beaumarchais’s play La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Figaro – Hadleigh Adams [recitatives & ensembles] / Joseph Padfield [arias]
Susanna – Raphaela Papadakis
Doctor Bartolo – James Platt
Marcellina – Rosín Walsh
Cherubino – Catherine Backhouse
Count Almaviva – Ben McAteer
Don Basilio – Adam Smith
Rosina, Countess Almaviva – Magdalena Molendowska
Antonio – Piran Legg
Don Curzio – Joshua Owen Mills
Barbarina – Lauren Zolezzi
Bridesmaids – Alison Langer & Bethan Langford
Chorus & Orchestra of Guildhall School of Music & Drama
Martin Lloyd-Evans – Director
Bridget Kimak – Designer
Declan Randall – Lighting designer
Victoria Newlyn – Choreographer
James Adkins – Video designer
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 6 March, 2013
Venue: Silk Street Theatre, Guildhall School of Music & Drama, London
This was the last in the run of the Guildhall School’s production of Le nozze di Figaro, but with a significantly different cast in the major roles. Although Hadleigh Adams was to have played Figaro in all the performances, he only performed in part for this last evening, having been struck with a throat infection. He took the recitatives and ensembles, but mimed in his three arias whilst Joseph Padfield sang from the side of the audience.
The production cohered well. It might have seemed odd to update this work – as much about the politics of social stratification as those of sex –to contemporary America, an ostensibly classless nation. But the variations in the distribution of wealth and privilege there simply entail the division of society by other means, and so transplanting the opera to that context revealed the message of Beaumarchais and Mozart/Da Ponte as just as telling today as in the years before 1789. Moreover the significant indications of a contemporary setting were the Brechtian relays of news reportage on the TV in Figaro’s room in Act One and in Almaviva’s office in Act Three which featured, respectively, scenes of warfare (presumably Afghanistan or Iraq) as Cherubino was commissioned into the army, and Barack Obama’s election campaign. The reference to ‘Cox News’ might have been a wordplay too far, more suited to a Carry On film rather than to the most perfect and subtle comedy of manners ever devised in any art form. However, Almaviva was credibly reinterpreted as a politician on the campaign trail and obliged to make the disingenuous shows of respectability that are expected of democratically elected politicians. Suddenly the world of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Chris Huhne and their like did not seem very far away.
Even the Hispanic background of the original did not prove incongruous with as the chorus appeared to consist of Mexican immigrants. Almaviva’s moral failings are made all the more poignant as we glimpse the electioneering board in his office that says “Todays Illegals Tomorrows Democrats” [sic]. The announcement of the death of Hugo Chavez on the very day of this performance perhaps pointed up the real and continuing political disparity between the Latin and more WASPish parts of the American continent which this staging wanted to highlight.
The cast seemed entirely comfortable and unabashed with such a politicisation of this perennially relevant opera. There was nothing student-like about the performance, not least in not being over-dramatised – in fact at times the acting seemed a little reserved, for instance in the comparative lack of visible hostility between Susanna and Marcellina in their Act One duet (though this was present musically) or on the part of Basilio who is often camped-up. Musically things were a little more uneven. In his share of the role of Figaro, Adams had a voice that came from rather deep in the chest, threatening to sound throttled and as though Figaro were the villain of the drama instead of Almaviva. That might have been attributable to Adams’s throat infection, but Padfield had a more mellifluously resonant and lyrical tone that was better suited to the role and with a more apposite note of humour. That said, by the time of Figaro’s Act Four aria Hadfield seemed to have modulated his tone to become more like that of Adams’s.
Raphaela Papadakis made a convincing Susanna. She was both demure when necessary but skittish and knowing at other times – fully the equal of Figaro and a foil for Almaviva. In the role of the latter Ben McAteer provided the most rounded account of any of the characters assigned to the singers. Initially he did not come across as an ogre on his first surreptitious advance to Susanna in her room in Act One, but rather as an imperfect human who is not in command of his passions and urges. Rightly this was not a reading about stark black and white moral opposites: there was nothing to suggest that somebody in Susanna’s position would automatically rebuff him out of horror or disgust. McAteer grew into an angrier and more forceful figure as Almaviva’s plans become increasingly thwarted, for instance when he tries to gain access to the Countess’s wardrobe in Act Two. In his reflective scena at the beginning of Act Three where the Count discloses more of his human foibles and flaws, McAteer remained outwardly and musically firm, conveying Almaviva’s frustrations and complexities. There was also a certain nobility at the denouement of the drama as he asked the Countess for forgiveness – in effect standing-in for all humanity in seeking remission for its shortcomings.
From the musical point of view Magdalena Molendowska had the most difficult part as the Countess, for the simple beauty of her great arias ‘Porgi amor’ and ‘Dove sono’ belies the consummate skill required to sustain the necessary control over the seamless melodies and to make it appear effortless. Molendowska failed to achieve this with her tendency to take audible breaths between phrases, breaking the flow of the music and suggesting that she is not yet an instinctive Mozartean. It did not help that Dominic Wheeler took both these arias a trifle routinely and rushed, unloved. Nevertheless there was fire and power in Molendowska’s voice, which made of the role no weak or passive wife.
Catherine Backhouse looked the part as the young male Cherubino and perhaps also intended to simulate a vocal effect accordingly with a deep contralto tone rather than a radiant, girlish voice. While her performance was not inaccurate, the delivery of the music was a little unfocussed and a wide vibrato made for somewhat blurred melodic lines. I cannot help but find that the music for Cherubino expresses some sort of innocence. The test of this is in ‘Voi che sapete’ which should be sung with unaffected clarity, but that was not quite the case here.
The other parts, taken by singers who had been present throughout all the performances, were generally excellent. My only reservations are that Adam Smith’s tenor seemed a little clipped and strained; and ‘La vendetta’ was a bit stodgy and did not take off with the fury it should – James Platt as Bartolo failed to push on through the aria with urgency and tension. In the favour of all the cast, their enunciation of the Italian text sounded idiomatic and convincing. Exceptions aside, the lead given by Wheeler was exemplary. With a smaller orchestra (strings 220.127.116.11.2) it was possible to elucidate some of the inner details of Mozart’s sumptuous score; but a requisite depth and weight was not lacking in the grander moments. Despite the qualms, this was a professional and satisfying staging.