A Day of Folly: Le nozze di Figaro at Welsh National Opera

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro.

Il Conte – Jonathan McGovern
La Contessa – Anita Watson
Figaro – David Ireland
Susanna – Soraya Mafi
Cherubino – Anna Harvey
Marcellina – Leah-Marian Jones
Don Basilio – Richard Roberts
Don Curzio – Richard Roberts
Bartolo – Henry Waddington
Antonio – Laurence Cole
Barbarina – Harriet Eyley

Chorus of Welsh National Opera, Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Carlo Rizzi.
Stage Director – Tobias Richter.

Welsh National Opera, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, Wales.  Sunday, February 16th, 2020. 

This was an extremely gusty day in Cardiff Bay, home to the Wales Millennium Centre, the base of Welsh National Opera.  Fortunately, the temperature inside the building was a lot more temperate for this revival of Tobias Richter’s staging of Le nozze di Figaro, co-produced with the Grand Théâtre de Genève.  The company had assembled a youthful cast under their former music director, Carlo Rizzi.

Richter’s staging, here revived by Max Hoehn, is an efficient framework for the action.  He sets it in a rather sparse setting, ideal for a touring company such as this.  Two large blocks set up a space for a room, whether Susanna and Figaro’s new bedroom or the Contessa’s boudoir, and are moved to the side to open up a roomy venue for the wedding and moved back to provide places for the characters to hide during Act 4.  There were some incongruous touches – steel doors and a metal stepladder, as well as a solitary lightbulb, all looked out of place with the period costumes (Sue Blane).  I thought at first that there would be some eventual reflection on the passage of time, perhaps some hints of modernity entering as the evening progressed, but this was not to be.  That said, there was an interesting touch as the chorus aggressively threw flowers at Jonathan McGovern’s Conte as they lauded him, one chorister yelling ‘vergogna’, bringing that sense of the dying days of a regime to life.  Yet again, this was a theme that felt underexplored.  There were some interesting ideas in the personenregie – Figaro and Cherubino marching in step in ‘non più andrai’, or the brilliant comic timing of Leah-Marian Jones’s Marcellina.  Yet these were combined with a fair bit of standing and delivering.  That said, as the evening progressed, the cast grew in confidence and brought out more energy in their portrayal of their characters.  Perhaps, this was a case of first night nerves and this energy will be there right from the start as the run progresses.

Photo: © Richard Hubert Smith

Musically, there was much that satisfied, not least Carlo Rizzi’s conducting.  I must admit I wasn’t expecting such a terrifically idiomatic reading from him, given his strength in later repertoire, but he proved himself to be a first-class Mozartian.  Tempi were nicely swift throughout, attack was sharp, and strings played with minimal vibrato.  Moreover, Rizzi brought out so much elegance in the orchestral line, that constantly evolving dialogue in the orchestra brought to life with genuine wit and immediacy.  The orchestra was on good form for him, the odd few moments of sour and scrappy string playing excepted but again, this should settle down as the run progresses.  As should the coordination between the lusty chorus and the pit as the singers seemed somewhat surprised by the lively tempi.  If there was one disappointment in Rizzi’s reading it was that the recitatives did have a tendency to sag, lacking in that essential sense of crackling electricity – something Rizzi had in common with Jérémie Rhorer’s recent Figaro in Paris, France.  Ornamentation, which is absolutely crucial to this repertoire, was disappointingly pretty much absent.

Photo: © Richard Hubert Smith

David Ireland brought his rustic bass to the title role.  At first, he seemed somewhat contained, singing over the text rather than with it, but he certainly had some energy on stage.  By Act 4 he grew with confidence, savouring the text in his aria and bringing out Figaro’s anger and resolve.  His Susanna was Soraya Mafi.  Her bright soprano initially sounded a little shallow, but she also grew in confidence as the evening progressed rising to a delectably sung ‘deh vieni’, phrased with poise and elegance.  Anna Harvey sang a long-lined ‘voi che sapete’, caressing the lines and adding a welcome embellishment.  I suspect the role, at least at modern pitch, sits rather high for her, the higher reaches not quite hit à point.  That said, the energy that she deployed on stage and the elegance of her singing gave pleasure.

Photo: © Richard Hubert Smith

As the Almavivas, McGovern was a youthful Conte, also bringing out so many facets of his character.  The snarling tone that he expressed to Susanna as she rejected him in Act 1 revealed a not so hidden sense of entitlement over his female servants.  Or the anger that he brought out when he realized that he had been duped in his big aria, negotiating the triplets with ease.  He also pulled back nicely on the tone in his pleading for forgiveness.  Above all, McGovern sang this music with his voice, never pushing, always allowing the voice to flow.  His Contessa was Anita Watson.  Her ‘porgi amor’ was dispatched with big sound and generous vibrations.  Unfortunately, phrasing in her ‘dove sono’ was rather short, despite Rizzi’s flowing tempo, and there was no attempt to ornament it, to truly make the music her own – although the shortness of phrasing was deployed to dramatic effect, making it much more desperate than the wistful nostalgia we usually hear.

Photo: © Richard Hubert Smith

For once, Marcellina was granted her aria which Jones dispatched with delicious wit, sitting down with a glass of wine to give her reflections on animal relationships.  She negotiated the higher reaches of the part with seasoned professionalism and her fruity mezzo has real character.  Harriet Eyley sang a crystalline Barbarina, indeed I’d like to hear her Susanna one day.  Henry Waddington was a gruff Bartolo, while Richard Roberts brought an appropriately slender and sandy tenor to illustrate the older characters he portrayed.

This felt perhaps ultimately like a work in progress – not an uncommon feeling at the start of a run.  The staging was fluent, but inconsistent, while the singing had much to offer and will surely offer even more as the run progresses – although Mafi, McGovern and Jones made significant positive impressions in their roles.  Rizzi’s conducting was immensely satisfying, full of Mozartian elegance of phrasing with near-ideal tempi and played with scintillating vigour by the house orchestra.

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