Le nozze di Figaro – Opera buffa in four Acts to a libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte after the comedy La folle journée, ou Le mariage de Figaro, by Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais [sung in Italian with English surtitles]
Figaro – Jacobo Ochoa
Susanna – Lorena Paz Nieto
Countess Almaviva – Galina Averina
Count Almaviva – Nicholas Morris
Cherubino – Angharad Lyddon
Marcellina – Jeni Bern
Doctor Bartolo – Trevor Eliot Bowes
Don Basilio/Don Curzio – Rhodri Prys Jones
Antonio – Mark Saberton
Barbarina – Jennifer Clark
Bridesmaids – Sian Roberts & Esther Mallett
West Green House Chorus & Orchestra
Richard Studer – Director & Designer
Sarah Bath – Lighting Designer
Jill Rolfe – Costume supervisor
Reviewed by: Curtis Rogers
Reviewed: 23 July, 2022
Venue: West Green House Gardens, Hartley Wintney, Hampshire, England
Such is the enduring appeal and ingenuity of Mozart’s first collaboration with Lorenzo Da Ponte that it generally survives whatever is thrown at it in terms of staging or performance – or, in this case, whatever is not thrown at it. The open air ‘theatre on the lake’ – which West Green trialled last year during Covid conditions but has decided to retain – provides a comparatively compact space within which to work. Being open on three sides there are no wings from which sets or machinery can be manoeuvred so as to enable any really dynamic concept in staging to be sustained. That is also true at Garsington, although as often as not directors have found clever ways of overcoming or even exploiting that. But here the smaller stage is surrounded by water, preventing any real movement to the left or front, and the bridge over which the singers must come and go to the right is visible, making it harder to suspend disbelief in the reality of the theatrical action. If that can be defended on the grounds that any director worth their salt will devise any manner of Brechtian ways to break the fourth wall, then the problem for the audience is that the lake between us and the front of the stage more emphatically re-creates that phenomenon than any proscenium arch, and it is hard to see how that can ever be overcome. Certainly Cherubino does not make his escape from the Countess’s closet by taking a plunge into the water. Perhaps one day the sea serpent of Idomeneo will be able to put in appearance.
As darkness falls and West Green’s justly celebrated illuminated gardens come into their own, that unquestionably provides a beautiful backdrop, and an especially appropriate one for Act Four of Figaro. But otherwise Richard Studer’s production is rather pared down and almost hampers the opera’s unyielding vivacity. The relevant interiors of the Count’s mansion are laid in three clear areas, delineated by open white frames. But without any walls or doors, the singers have to mime the actions of entering and departing, or locking and unlocking – crucial to the comedy of the various scenes as different characters come and go, or hide. A similar approach was taken by Thomas Guthrie for Longborough in 2016, but that also had a clear concept by being set on the eve of the First World War at the great neighbouring house to that festival, Sezincote. Studer’s vision is unfortunately rather devoid of any very specific context as the various indeterminate costumes suggest anywhere between the 1930s and the 1960s (Susanna’s ironic deference to Marcellina in the duet ‘Via resti servita’ by calling her the “Force’s sweetheart” suggests a time during or after the Second World but no military action ever becomes evident); and the one gesture towards a concept are the portraits along the back wall of various aristocratic worthies from the eighteenth- and nineteenth-centuries but with Mozart’s picture as the centrepiece among them, perhaps arguing for the superiority of artistic aristocracy. If that is so, the point is not developed.
The singers generally make a better fist of forging a coherent whole out of the music. Jacobo Ochoa is an efficient Figaro, with occasional heft, but jovial on the whole. Lorena Paz Nieto has more sparkle in voice and eye, making her a charmingly playful Susanna, showing which of the two has the upper hand. Nicholas Morris is a dark-toned Count Almaviva but somewhat wooden in choreography, whereas Galina Averina as his Countess remains poised and dignified – if she starts out somewhat uncertainly, she attains more steady confidence for the triumphant resolve at the end of ‘Dove sono’.
Angharad Lyddon sounds strangely husky and hollow as Cherubino, and her intonation sometimes goes sharp. It might have seemed as though she were imitating the voice of an adolescent boy on the verge of breaking, but her more settled way with her second aria ‘Voi che sapete’ indicates that it was evidently only accidental. Trevor Eliot Bowes sings with powerful conviction as Doctor Bartolo, not least in ‘La vendetta’ as he vows to revenge himself upon Figaro, whilst Jeni Bern is an engagingly forbearing Marcellina. Rhodri Prys Jones ably plays up the comic elements of Don Basilio’s appearances, whilst Jennifer Clark and Mark Saberton make a creditable Barbarina and Antonio respectively.
Jonathan Lyness conducts an uneven account of the score. For all that it often courses along with a suitably light touch, and recitatives are sprightly and follow hard on the heels of the principal numbers to sustain dramatic tension, at other times pace lags. The scene in Act One where Cherubino and then the Count come to Susanna’s room often pauses and hesitates to no purpose, and the magnificent Act Two Finale doesn’t pulse with the necessary sense of expectation and excitement (though the choreography here does successfully convey chaos and confusion). The Act Four Finale is much better in building momentum to the point where the Countess pronounces forgiveness. With the orchestra ranged in an awkward formation at the back of the stage, balance is skewed as trumpets sometimes obtrude too prominently, as do the timpani, out on a limb. Less could have been more in the smaller musical and dramaturgical resources used in this production, but there needs to be more panache and spirit to bring that off successfully.