La Folle Journée: Le nozze di Figaro at the Gran Teatre de Liceu

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro

Il Conte – Gyula Orendt
La Contessa – Anett Fritsch
Figaro – Kyle Ketelsen
Susanna – Mojca Erdmann
Cherubino – Anna Bonitatibus
Marcellina – Maria Riccarda Wesseling
Don Basilio – José Manuel Zapata
Don Curzio – Vicenç Esteve Madrid
Bartolo – Valeriano Lanchas
Antonio – Roberto Accurso
Barbarina – Rocío Martínez

Cor del Gran Teatre del Liceu, Orquestra Simfònica del Gran Teatre del Liceu / Josep Pons.
Stage Director – Lluís Pasqual.

Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona, Catalonia.  Saturday, November 12th, 2016.

The last week has been one of the most awful weeks in a dreadful year, yet sometimes we need reminding that humanity is capable of doing something good.  What better way, then, to be reminded of that with Le nozze di Figaro, a work that when done right, really feels like the work of a true genius.  This run also marked the farewell of Anna Bonitatibus to one of her signature roles, Cherubino.  Truth be told, it sounds as if she has many more Cherubinos left, yet it’s also a time to look towards the future, to new challenges and indeed, in many ways this is also true for the world that we live in.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill
Photo: © Antoni Bofill

The staging, first seen here in 2008, is the work of Lluís Pasqual and is a coproduction with Welsh National Opera where it has also been seen on tour.  Updated to the 1930s, it certainly still looks good and the final act is definitely visually arresting with moving panels allowing characters to hide from each other and really brings home the plotting contained in the text.  The division of class between the servants and aristocrats was brought home not only visually, through the costumes tonight, but also vocally, with the Contessa, Conte and Cherubino making liberal use of ornamentation.  Yet, while the updating looks handsome, I think Pasqual really misses something in that I’m not convinced we get a sense of the turmoil of Spanish society during that republican period, and the relationship between the aristocrats and the servants at that time.  That would be a fascinating basis for a reading of the text but it’s not one I feel we get here.  Furthermore, there seemed to be multiple non sequiturs that didn’t lead to anything.  As we progressed through the folle journée, the lighting would at times reflect daylight or sunset but then within a single scene change into another time of day.  Similarly, a fireplace in the Countess’ boudoir switched itself off just as she finished ‘porgi amor’ and never came on again.  While Kyle Ketelsen’s Figaro got to display some confident ball skills in Act 4, having seen this staging three times now, I’m still not sure what the ball that appears from the sky, and promptly returns to it, is supposed to represent.  As a framework for the action it does the job, is attractive to look at and allows the singers to create their characters, yet it could be so much more if ideas were actually followed through.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill
Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Musically, I have to say that in many respects we got a world class performance but in others there were some issues.  The main for me was Josep Pons’ conducting.  Strings played with minimal vibrato, which was welcome, but there were intonation issues as a result.  I got a sense from him of there being an understanding of the score and the interplay between the instrumental parts, but the coordination between stage and pit went awry many times during the evening.  Tempi were generally leisurely rather than lively and it frequently felt that the singers would have preferred swifter tempi.  At times, attack in the band was sharp and at others it felt flaccid.  Critically, very often the recitatives failed to take wing and while the harpsichord was played with imagination, personally, I would have preferred to have heard a fortepiano in the texture.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill
Photo: © Antoni Bofill

I first came across Mojca Erdmann as a fine Sophie but it seems to me that her Susanna is a work in progress.  The voice is certainly attractive with a scintillating brightness and her ‘deh vieni’ was nicely sung.  What I missed was a genuine lack of understanding behind the text and the ability to make the notes more than just dots on the page and for the recits to feel truly conversational.  It’s an attractive instrument though and she did blend nicely with Anett Fritsch’s Contessa in the ‘canzonetta sull’aria’.  Ketelsen’s robust baritone was a pleasure to hear as Figaro.  The sound was so healthy and well produced and he was a genuinely congenial presence on stage.  He dispatched all of his arias with wit and warmth.  The supporting roles were also cast from strength with singers of wonderful presence, both vocal and dramatic, who really made their roles count.   Maria Riccarda Wesseling’s beautifully plush and fruity mezzo was magnificent as Marcellina and it made me regret the omission of her aria even more.  José Manuel Zapata was a splendidly witty Basilio who really sang his role off the text.  Roberto Accurso was a tremendous Antonio likewise singing with wit and humour and Valeriano Lanchas’ big voiced Bartolo had genuine presence.  Rocío Martínez’ Barbarina was nicely sung in a bright and elegant soprano.  They all gave much pleasure and formed an excellent ensemble.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill
Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Gyula Orendt was a handsome and aristocratic Count.  This is a voice of unmistakable quality and musicality.  The voice is totally responsive to everything he asks of it and he enhanced that aristocratic line with some sensitive embellishments throughout.  If there is one small thing, and it is small, it’s that the triplets at the end of his big number were over-aspirated but this will come with time.  Orendt is a major talent and I look forward to seeing him develop further.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill
Photo: © Antoni Bofill

Fritsch’s Contessa was likewise similarly aristocratic.  Her understanding of Mozartian style is profound but not a mere academic exercise.  Like Bonitatibus, she really knows how to bring this music to life.  The tone is beautifully rounded, yet attractively dusky, and her use of ornamentation just helped her music to soar and live in the most remarkable way.  Her ‘dove sono’ was absolutely lovely – long lines with warm, enveloping tone and for those few minutes it felt that she was the only person in the world who could sing that music.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill
Photo: © Antoni Bofill

When Bonitatibus sang ‘voi che sapete’ one felt exactly the same sensation – that often-heard aria transformed into three minutes of sheer poetry.  Technically, Bonitatibus is exceptional, yet she transcends technique to make the audience believe that she really is an awkward, lovesick teenager through that unteachable union of text, voice and musicality.  It felt absolutely miraculous and achieved through a profound understanding of style and use of ornamentation that also made me believe she was the only person who could sing that music.

Photo: © Antoni Bofill
Photo: © Antoni Bofill

There was magic on that stage tonight and for a moment the world really did feel like a better place.  Yes, there were certainly issues with the conducting and some of the singing but the cumulative effect is what matters and this is a Figaro that really does have much to offer and certainly one I would gladly go see again.  Yet, as so often, we are reminded that opera is ephemeral, it can only live in that moment where artists make us feel that we are living a once in a lifetime event.  Tonight that feeling was most certainly present and there really were some miraculous moments.

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