Le nozze di Figaro – Royal College of Music

Le nozze di Figaro [Sung in Italian with English surtitles]

Figaro – James Oldfield
Susanna – Sophie Bevan
Doctor Bartolo – Vuyani Mlinde
Marcellina – Angelica Voje
Cherubino – Sigríður Ósk Kristjánsdóttir
Count Almaviva – Vojtěch Šafařík
Don Basilio – Ben Johnson
Countess Almaviva – Pumenza Matshikiza
Antonio – Philip Tebb
Don Curizo – Joseph Timmons
Barbarina – Stephanie Edwards

Royal College of Music Opera Orchestra
Michael Rosewell

James Conway – Director
Agnes Treplin – Designer
Matthew Haskins – Lighting Designer
Bernadette Iglich – Choreographer

Reviewed by: Kevin Rogers

Reviewed: 25 June, 2007
Venue: Britten Theatre, Royal College of Music, London

The Royal College of Music has had notable success at the recent BBC Cardiff Singer of the World competition: six of this year’s finalists were graduates. This current production of “The Marriage of Figaro” allows one to hear those singers following hot on their heels.

Parts of this production are ideally-suited to this wonderful performance space hidden near the Royal Albert Hall: a miniature Royal Opera House. The sets were fine in presenting a Spanish villa, complete with floor-to-ceiling wooden shutters; the gorgeous blue-sky backdrop looking out of the Countess’s bedroom (Act Two) was seductive. What did not quite fit this setting (or the opera itself) was having a heavily pregnant Susanna, especially out of place given the context of the role of servants in society and the Count’s own plans to exercise his privilege of droit du seigneur, which is specific to virgins! Her being portrayed as pregnant begs the question: just whose baby is it? One assumes it is Figaro’s but the production does not answer this. It was also a shame that Doctor Bartolo was put in a wheelchair, though for his ‘big numbers’ he got out of it. The costumes seemed to come out of the French royal court, so they did not seem appropriate, either. All in all, then, the staging was a bit of a mixed bag. But not fatally so.

In places, the humour failed to catch light as it should, such as when Cherubino and the Count are hiding from Basilio (Act One) or when Susanna exchanges herself for Cherubino in the Countess’s wardrobe. In both examples timing and execution were lacking, as well as a general sense of the manic comedy which this young cast could have produced most easily. What seemed to be paramount on this occasion was to stand and deliver the singing and to act out the recitatives.

Throughout, Sophie Bevan was the glue that held everyone else together. Her acting, followed by that of James Oldfield and Vojtěch Šafařík, was the most convincing. Bevan had control over the other characters, much more than Oldfield, and produced clear tones with plenty of characterisation. As Figaro, Oldfield could easily be mistaken for Bryn Terfel. In ‘Se vuol ballare’ and ‘Non più andrai’ Oldfield had a commanding tone but his diction did suffer in rapidity.

Pumenza Matshikiza’s opening ‘Porgi, amor’ seemed over-rehearsed: it was forceful and unnatural. She was generally overpowering in this venue and needed to reduce her volume: the rest of the cast had this space well-judged, even the booming Mlinde. Similarly, the Countess’s ‘Dovo, sono’ was difficult to listen to and was in no way seductive; she seemed never to grasp that she was singing of things past and should be pining for lost pleasures.

Vojtěch Šafařík inhabited the Count’s character: he was a predator, knowing exactly what he wanted, and able to turn on his sexy swagger and seductive charm at ease, even though this did not get him very far! Cherubino’s ‘Voi che sapete’ was scuppered by directed stage-noise and rather rapid tempos from Rosewell that precluded lingering over true feelings – a shame. In the quartets and higher, the ensemble worked better, perhaps because these students know each other so well. Their interplay was marred only by Matshikiza’s stage-grabbing singing. The parts of Basilio and Don Curzio were indistinguishable from each other because of their make-up and dress, but they had plenty of spirit and invested their characters with suitable idiosyncrasies and mad-cap manners.

In the pit, Michael Rosewell gave a sympathetic account of the music but was on many occasions far too loud, almost deafening. He kept the drama running along, perhaps at the expense of allowing some reflection, though this did not detract too much from the enjoyment of the evening.

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