Le nozze de Figaro – Opera in four acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after La Folle Journée ou Le Mariage de Figaro by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Figaro – Matthew Hargreaves
Susanna – Jane Harrington
Count Almaviva – George van Bergen
Countess Almaviva – Elizabeth Llewellyn
Cherubino – Hannah Pedley
Dr Bartolo – Lynton Black
Marcellina – Sarah Pring
Don Basilio / Don Curzio – Andrew Glover
Antonio – Henry Grant Kerswell
Barbarina – Jaimee Marshall
First bridesmaid – Katherine Everett
Second Bridesmaid – Kate Warshaw
Opera Holland Park Chorus
City of London Sinfonia
Liam Steel – Director
Emma Wee – Designer
Colin Grenfell – Lighting Designer
Reviewed by: Mark Valencia
Reviewed: 2 July, 2011
Venue: Opera Holland Park, Kensington, London
Balmy though it was in Kensington, a cloud of uncertainty broke over the opening night of Le nozze di Figaro when producer James Clutton took to the Holland Park stage. His news was dramatic: the company’s original Susanna, Claire Meghnagi, had “left the production” as recently as last Monday and Jane Harrington had been parachuted in to replace her at a few days’ notice. After that surprise, Clutton’s addendum that Matthew Hargreaves was under the weather but would soldier on as Figaro felt like a walk in the peacock park.
If Hargreaves was struggling it was not a grave distraction. Admittedly his volume was constrained, and he was obliged to fake (with success) some of the high notes in Act One, yet for the most part there was a more incisive definition to the timbre than I have previously heard from this often lugubrious artist. He plays the marriageable servant with energy and an unexpected swagger – here cutting a dash, there dashing about like a seasoned farceur. As for Harrington as his intended (and the object of Count Almaviva’s lustful seigniorial attentions), no-one would have known that she was semi-winging it. Dress rehearsal notwithstanding, two and a half days’ work on such a complex physical production is practically nothing; yet the young soprano never put a foot wrong. The notes rang out with sweet if muted assurance – she clearly knows the opera very well – and such was her complete assumption of the role that the audience soon forgot all about this Susanna’s secret.
Director Liam Steel had a scintillating start to 2011 with his inventive staging of Gianni Schicchi for English Touring Opera – one of the wittiest productions I have seen of any opera – and now he brings his trademark visual flair to the more subtle comedy of Mozart’s greatest work for the stage. Steel keeps the zaniness in check but the zest is still there, as is the stylistic fecundity. He and designer Emma Wee update and relocate the opera to the world of Downton Abbey, which means another starring role for the Holland House exterior, bedecked this time with false-perspective walls and enough doors for a Ray Cooney comedy. The stalwarts of the Opera Holland Park Chorus are rarely absent from the busy stage, whether as servants, chambermaids or human scenery (they are required to flesh out all the fragments of tables, chairs, curtains, mirrors and portrait galleries within the house – it’s that sort of production).
The opera begins with a bustling household to-and-fro that recalls (no doubt unconsciously) the opening of David McVicar’s production at The Royal Opera. We meet all the opera’s protagonists during the course of a rapid dumb-show that sets the tone for an evening of high-octane entertainment; the indefatigable choristers hoof gamely (choreographic point of reference: ‘Who Will Buy?’ from Oliver!) and attention is deflected from a solid account of the Overture by Matthew Willis and the splendid City of London Sinfonia.
Willis cradles his singers with a lyrical, long-breathed reading of the score that brings the best out of the arias and the worst out of the recitatives. His approach is at odds with the stage production, because where Steel demands febrile urgency to propel the action, he is thwarted by the conductor’s indulgent approach to the recits. Willis is certainly singer-friendly, though, and the sensitive continuo playing of Catriona Beveridge adds to the grace of his reading. Neither George van Bergen nor Elizabeth Llewellyn is a particularly expressive actor, but as the Count and Countess they are two superb singers who luxuriate in the opportunity to interpret this magnificent music at their own pace.
This is a production where the audience needs to stay alert. Changes of location are scarcely apparent, Lorenzo Da Ponte’s stage directions are reinterpreted at will and with so much visual business one forgets to follow the surtitles. Indeed, there is almost too much going on. Steel gilds the directorial lily with a surfeit of peripheral activity, as when Cherubino’s ‘Voi, che sapete’ is illustrated by some imagined lustiness between the Count, Susanna and the Countess that both distracts and detracts from Hannah Pedley’s fine performance as the priapic pageboy. Overall, Steel’s scatter-gun stagecraft means that the many blissful moments (such as Cherubino’s knockabout ‘leap’ through the Countess’s window) are offset by passages where inspiration flags (the orchestral march at the end of Act Three has little to offer).
The greatest challenge to any creative team tackling Le nozze di Figaro is to sustain interest in Act Four, by which point the most arresting plot threads have already been resolved and the big tunes have come and gone. Morpheus is always ready to catch slumbering spectators in his arms once this opera drifts past the three-hour mark. The night-time al fresco setting means that the stage is necessarily dim, so figures can be hard to distinguish and the dénouements difficult to follow. Neither Willis’s relaxed tempos nor Steel’s super-dark masked ball does quite enough to keep the audience gripped, but we’re constantly swept along by their panache and that’s what counts.
- Performances continue until July 16