Revolution in the air: Le nozze di Figaro at the Bayerische Staatsoper

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro.

Il Conte – Mariusz Kwiecień
La Contessa – Johanni van Oostrum
Figaro – Alex Esposito
Susanna – Tara Erraught
Cherubino – Angela Brower
Marcellina – Heike Grötzinger
Don Basilio – Ulrich Reß
Don Curzio – Kevin Conners
Bartolo – Alexander Tsymbalyuk
Antonio – Peter Lobert
Barbarina – Paula Iancic

Chor der Bayerischen Staatsoper, Bayerisches Staatsorchester / Antonello Manacorda
Stage Director – Dieter Dorn.

Bayerische Staatsoper, Munich, Germany.  Friday, November 18th, 2016.

When this Figaro was announced, I was intrigued by the casting of mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught as Susanna and it led me to reflect more widely on the question of what German-speakers term Fach.  Especially, when Erraught was paired, as tonight, with a soprano-ish mezzo such as Angela Brower as Cherubino.  If one thinks of how a certain Italian singer has made her career crossing registers, it occurred to me that the crux of the issue is whether a singer can sing the role, manage the tessitura and have the right voice colour than simply attaching labels.

Given that the German word Fach means box or compartment, it also seems also particularly pertinent to Dieter Dorn’s staging.  The entire evening takes place within a white box – at times with doors attached at others not; while in the fourth act, characters hide behind white sheets.  By placing the entirety of the action within this space, Dorn brings home the claustrophobic nature of the palace of Aguasfrescas and the fact that everyone is involved in everyone else’s business.  Yet there is an apparent disconnect between the ‘traditional’ costumes (Jürgen Rose) and the bright lighting throughout, that combined with this barely-changing set robs us of a sense of time and place during the folle journée.  The main strength of the staging is its easy-revivability, essential for a repertoire house such as Munich, and the fact that allows singers to work within it and create their own vivid interpretations.

I don’t know how many times Mariusz Kwiecień and Alex Esposito have sung the Conte and Figaro respectively – I’ve certainly seen them a number of times in these roles – but tonight there was no sense of routine in anything they did.  Indeed, one felt the enormous privilege of seeing two master singing-actors at their peak working magic.  Watching them, I was so gripped that while they were on stage together, I forgot that I was in a theatre and was so completely drawn into their world.  For these two, revolution was unquestionably in the air.  Esposito’s Figaro was most definitely not afraid to challenge his master, likewise, Kwiecień’s Count used his status and power to sexually harass the ladies of the palace.  In that respect, this Figaro was revolutionary – we wanted the servants to be able to overturn the master.  Yet this was not just achieved through their acting but also through their outstanding vocalism and use of text.  Their performances lived, precisely because they were sung off the text and because both are such terrific stage animals.  Esposito’s Figaro was rustic, sung in that healthy bass-baritone and the voice did absolutely everything asked of it.  Kwiecień showed such affinity with the idiom, ornamenting his big aria with bravura abandon, that velvety middle and strong top always at the service of the work.  His final ‘contessa perdono’, sung in a mesmerizing half-voice had one hanging off every second.

The remainder of the cast wasn’t quite on this level but still gave a great deal of pleasure.  Erraught’s Susanna was a role debut for this run and she clearly has put a great deal of work into it.  Her command of the notes and words were total and the voice was so very well placed, bright and forward.  I found that her Italian isn’t completely idiomatic – but she has clearly worked hard on it and hopefully she can get the clarity of the vowels even more precise with time.  The tessitura felt absolutely even and her oboe-toned voice really is well suited to the role.  I had no sense of her pushing at the higher register in the way many mezzos do when singing soprano roles.  Her delightful stage presence really shone out and I hope with time she can really use the text.  To my ears, she’s a good way there but not quite yet.

Part of the reason the remainder of the cast sounded quite anonymous was the lack of ornamentation, other than a few appoggiature here and there, and this was especially the case for Johanni van Oostrum’s Contessa.  Hers was a more anxious, neurotic Countess than we might be used to and certainly a much stronger character.  Her two big numbers were sung with a beautiful legato, easy line and evenness of emission.  And yet, she didn’t quite make me believe that she was the only person who could sing that music even though it was very nicely sung and certainly extremely watchable.  There is a lot that is good there though.

I’m afraid I found Angela Brower’s Cherubino bland, despite a prettily sung ‘voi che sapete’ which was agreeably ornamented.  I just wanted a sense that she was singing with the text rather than skimming over it.  It was all very nice but there was little sense of vocal colouring and of making the notes much more than dots on a page.  Technically, Brower is a very fine singer but interpretatively I longed for more.  The remainder of the cast was certainly vocally up to the standards of the house but once again, that kind of textual awareness that Esposito and Kwiecień brought was missing.  Alexander Tsymbalyuk, with that beautiful, cavernous bass, was luxuriously cast as Bartolo and Heike Grötzinger was a somewhat plummy Marcellina and sadly, once again deprived of her aria.  The Barbarina, Paula Iancic, displayed a lovely, crystalline soprano, one I hope will graduate to Susanna very soon.

The orchestra played decently for Antonello Manacorda whose conducting was key to the success of the evening.  Tempi were nicely swift and there were some charming and inventive interjections on the fortepiano from Wolf-Michael Storz.  Very occasionally, coordination between stage and pit would go awry but that was only when the cast was placed upstage.  I loved the contributions of the natural brass who made the closing pages of Act 2 so delightfully raspy.  Mancorda also made sure that the recitatives really scintillated with life and they felt truly conversational.

Tonight was received with a tremendous ovation from this passionate public who clearly loved it.  I felt that it was a very good repertoire performance and in some cases much more than that.  There were a couple of extremely promising assumptions of their roles from Erraught and van Oostrum.  However, in Esposito and Kwiecień I felt really privileged to watch two masters at work, giving the total experience of text, music and physicality that really encapsulates what opera is all about.  There definitely was magic on Maximilianstrasse tonight.

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The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper.  Photo: © Wilfried Hösl
The Nationaltheater in Munich, home of the Bayerische Staatsoper. Photo: © Wilfried Hösl

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