Happy Ever After: Le nozze di Figaro at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro.

Il Conte – Stéphane Degout
La Contessa – Vannina Santoni
Figaro – Robert Gleadow
Susanna – Anna Aglatova
Cherubino – Eléonore Pancrazi
Marcellina – Jennifer Larmore
Don Basilio – Mathias Vidal
Don Curzio – Rodolphe Briand
Bartolo – Carlo Lepore
Antonio – Matthieu Lécroart
Barbarina – Florie Valiquette

Unikanti, Le Cercle de l’Harmonie/ Jérémie Rhorer.
Stage Director – James Gray.

Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Paris, France.  Sunday, December 1st, 2019.

For this, his first steps in directing the lyric theatre, acclaimed US cinéaste James Gray, was engaged to stage this new production of Le nozze di Figaro.  Around him the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées gathered a French and international cast to join regular collaborators at the house, Jérémie Rhorer and his Cercle de l’Harmonie.  Indeed, this group has previously given me a huge amount of pleasure at this address, in both Mozart and Rossini, and expectations were certainly very high tonight for this most life-enhancing of works.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

In an interesting discussion in the program book, Gray describes how he was unwilling to impose himself on the piece, instead preferring to mine the universal emotions that abound in Mozart’s music and Da Ponte’s libretto.  It made for an interesting starting point.  Gray gives us a staging that is very much set in the period – costumes (Christian Lacroix) and sets (Santo Loquasto) are very classic.  While the first two acts seem to take place in quite a rundown palace of Aguasfrescas, he pulls out quite an elegant scene for the wedding (an imposing staircase), as well as a delightful garden for the intrigue of the final act.  It was perhaps no coincidence that these were the two acts where the performance also felt that it was taking wing – the jubilation of the wedding scene, and of course that glorious closing ensemble, bringing out a happiness that was infectious.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

And yet, ultimately, I’m afraid to say I wasn’t entirely convinced.  Part of this was due to the direction of the singers.  There seemed to be an almost total absence of chemistry in the cast.  For almost the entirety of the evening, the cast barely looked at each other, instead preferring to sing to each other’s backs while addressing the front.  There were some moments where the cast truly interacted – an electric confrontation between Robert Gleadow’s Figaro and Stéphane Degout’s Conte in Act 3, the revolutionary act of standing up to authority, or as Anna Aglatova tenderly sang her ‘deh vieni’ to Gleadow hiding below a bench in Act 4, but these were few.  Instead, I longed to have characters engage with each other, to bring these inter-connected relationships to life.  As a result, it felt that the evening didn’t quite take off in the way that it really could have.  That said, the visuals seemed to delight the Champs-Élysées public who rewarded the performance with a huge and generous ovation.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

Another reason why I found the performance felt earthbound was in the pacing of the recitatives.  These felt frequently to be languorously paced, lacking in crackling conversational energy.  It was doubly frustrating because, by and large, Rhrorer’s tempi in the musical numbers felt pretty much ideal.  He kicked the evening off with a splendid overture, the fabulous sonorities of his excellent band coming to the fore – in particular the delightfully raspy horns and the piquant clarinets.  The strings also provided a consistent beauty to the texture.  Throughout the evening, the orchestra brought an energy that felt lacking on stage, the internal dialogue within the band providing such an engaging foundation to the sound.  Sadly, ornamentation, absolutely essential in this rep, was barely used.  I longed for the cast to make something of the emotional impact of appoggiature, or to truly take the musical line and make it their own.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

The solo performances were also rather mixed.  Aglatova was an interesting Susanna.  It sounded to my ears that her generous soprano took a little while to find the core – the tone initially spread around the note rather that on it.  She did warm up nicely and sang her ‘deh vieni’ with generous tenderness.  I did, however, miss a little of the smile in the voice, using the words to colour the tone and bring the character to life.  Vannina Santoni sang a noble Contessa.  Rhorer gave her some relatively slow tempi for her two arias and, in ‘dove sono’ in particular, it did sound like Santoni would have appreciated it taken a notch or two faster.  Unfortunately, her tuning was less than optimal, singing consistently sharp throughout the evening.  I have the impression that Santoni is perhaps one of nature’s Susannas rather than a Contessa.  Indeed, it might have been more optimal casting to have switched Aglatova and Santoni around.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

Eléonore Pancrazi was certainly an energetic Cherubino, throwing herself around the set with glee.  Vocally, however, her pitching was rather approximate – especially in the recits – as if carried away by the energy.  She pulled back the dynamics admirably in a dreamy ‘voi che sapete’, although with the tone becoming rather brittle, and I longed for her to find some improvisatory freedom in the line.  Jennifer Larmore was an enthusiastic Marcellina, sadly denied her aria, while Florie Valiquette was a delightful Barbarina, bright and crystalline of tone, I very much hope we’ll get to hear her Susanna soon.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

The gentlemen were much more satisfying.  Gleadow was a wonderfully energetic and engaging Figaro, savouring the text and bringing out a delicious energy on stage.  His rustic bass-baritone is in excellent shape, warm and resonant, and he sang his music with wit and generosity.  Degout found an almost Shakespearean depth to this portrayal of the Conte, making his aria a tour de force, bringing us into his character’s paranoia at seeing his power dissipate.  His baritone sounded a little dry towards the end, but he never succumbed to the temptation to hector, his singing always musical and the tone always handsome and masculine.  Mathias Vidal was a terrific Curzio, truly sung off the text in a liquid tenor.  Carlo Lepore sang Bartolo with a big, bold bass that was also capable of turning the corners with ease in his aria.  The youthful chorus sang with wonderfully fresh tone and executed their dance moves with accuracy.

Photo: © Vincent Pontet

This was perhaps an evening that didn’t completely fulfil its promise.  Gray’s staging was efficient and had much to offer, particularly in the latter two acts, but far too often, I longed for characters to actually engage with and sing to each other.  The singing from the ladies (Larmore and Valiquette excepted) also wasn’t quite at the same level as the gentlemen in the cast, and the lack of ornamentation was disappointing.  That said, the playing of that magnificent orchestra gave such an enormous amount of pleasure and Rhorer paced the arias and ensembles ideally, the evening fizzling along once we came out of the recits.  Ultimately, the closing ensemble worked its magic as it always does – the voices coming together, surrounded by the strings bringing out that sense of searching togetherness.  In those moments, Mozart seems to define what makes us human, that fundamental need to simply be happy.  It really worked its magic tonight so that, despite the reservations along the way, I was sent out into the Parisian night with a new-found optimism that the world really can be a better place.

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