Summer of Love: Le nozze di Figaro at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence

Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro.

Il Conte – Gyula Orendt
La Contessa – Jacquelyn Wagner
Figaro – Andrè Schuen
Susanna – Julie Fuchs
Cherubino – Lea Desandre
Marcellina – Monica Bacelli
Don Basilio – Emiliano González Toro
Don Curzio – Emiliano González Toro
Bartolo – Maurizio Muraro
Antonio – Leonardo Galeazzi
Barbarina – Elisabeth Boudreault

Chœur du CNRR de Marseille, Balthasar Neumann Ensemble / Thomas Hengelbrock.
Stage Director – Lotte de Beer.

Festival d’Aix-en-Provence, Théâtre de l’Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France.  Friday, July 9th, 2021.

After having to cancel the 2020 festival due to the health emergency, it is indeed a pleasure to be back in beautiful Aix-en-Provence for the 2021 edition.  This city is a magical place to spend a few days and, as always, getting to see opera under the Provençal stars at the Théâtre de l’Archevêché is one of the biggest privileges in the operatic world.  This year, the festival put in place some exceptional sanitary measures to ensure the safety of spectators.  All audience members are required to carry a French ‘pass sanitaire’ (equivalent to the EU green certificate) which provides proof of either full vaccination, a recent test, or recovery from the plague.  The theatre also accepts written vaccination certificates from non-EU countries, as long as these are either in French or English.  These were checked on the way into the theatre, but not cross-checked with any photo ID.  Audience members are also required to wear masks inside the house, but a number of people either removed them or wore them improperly, and it was extremely disappointing to see that there were no interventions by the staff where this was the case. 

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

As for the show itself, this new production of Le nozze di Figaro was confided to Netherlandic director Lotte de Beer.  De Beer will of course be familiar for her post-colonial production of Aida from Paris, France seen via streaming earlier this year, as well as her insightful staging of Trittico in Munich.  I must admit to finding her Figaro a bit of a mess.  De Beer sets the action in a number of epochs.  The staged overture sees characters dressed in rococo costumes chasing each other across the stage.  Acts 1 and 2 take place as if in a 1960s sitcom, the stage populated with furniture and signs saying ‘applause’ and ‘laughter’, while Act 3 takes place in a stark space, the Contessa’s boudoir in a glass cage in the middle.  Act 4 appears to be taking place in some kind of futuristic extra-terrestrial world, complete with huge alien like structure in the middle.  I assume de Beer’s point is that this is a universal story, that adultery and that the sexually harassing Count who uses his power to betray his wife, is a constant feature of any universe.  Or perhaps that the Count can only face his consequences far into the future.  There’s a lack of clarity in de Beer’s vision, an over-reliance on visual overload, that leaves one with the impression of masking the narrative and reducing it to sheer slapstick rather than delving the humanity within, that I found eventually rather tiresome.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

De Beer certainly gives a lot to look at, and there are some genuinely funny ideas – the blindfolded Count rubbing himself up against an ironing board, or Cherubino hiding within a spinning washing machine in Act 1, for instance.  But the Act 2 finale is a mess – the stage crowded with walking phalluses, Marcellina in a fat suit which she then removes – with so much to look at, the principals get completely lost, even though the cast give absolutely everything they have to it.  Perhaps, de Beer wanted to encapsulate the ‘son confuso, son stordito’ of the libretto, but the principals were lost within.  Where de Beer’s staging works is in Act 3, where in a bare setting, the principals are finally allowed to speak for and express themselves.  There was also an interesting angle taken with Cherubino, with a surprise at the finale – no spoilers – who appeared to be crossing gender boundaries as the evening developed. 

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

The evening felt even longer due to Thomas Hengelbrock’s pacing of the recitatives.  There were so many additional pauses inserted that dramatic tension frequently flagged, and rather than feeling conversationally paced, often appeared to drag on interminably.  There was less a sense of crackling electricity and more of a sense of the text being manipulated to find meaning that wasn’t necessarily there.  A shame, because his direction generally had some interesting ideas.  What a delight it was to hear the period horns and strings of the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble as the evening commenced, offering a beguiling texture.  Andreas Küppers’ fortepiano frequently offered some fascinating insights into the action during the musical numbers.  Hengelbrock’s tempi were relatively middle-of-the-road sensible, though he took ‘non so più’ a bit slower than we often hear it, in a dreamy tempo, that made it sound more of a reflection than an outburst of teenage horniness.  Otherwise, Hengelbrock made the orchestral textures feel quite symphonic in nature, the internal musical argument made to feel ever logical under the vocal lines, in a way that one does not often hear.   The orchestra was on superb form for him, the all-important winds full of character, and the strings were impeccably tuned all night.  The youthful chorus sang with agreeable blend and threw themselves into all the stage action with abandon.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Julie Fuchs gave us a glorious Susanna.  There was a smile in the voice that I found most engaging, and she caressed the text lovingly.  She was also an indefatigable presence on stage.  Her soprano is in fabulous shape, rising to an exquisite ‘deh vieni’ in which she made time stand still with endless phrases and sheer beauty of tone.  Andrè Schuen was a warm-voiced and amiable Figaro, such a positive and absorbing presence on stage.  His handsome baritone, dark chocolate in tone, also made much of the text, using it to colour the line, and through his classy use of ornamentation (essential in this repertoire) really made the music sound like he, and he alone, was the only person in the world who could sing it.  Lea Desandre gave us a gravity-defying Cherubino.  Her mezzo is really dark and warm at the bottom, yet rises to a bright and shining top, and in her two numbers sang with limitless freedom and ornamented the line with impeccable style.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

Jacquelyn Wagner’s Contessa was sung in a chalky soprano that dispatched her music with dignity and care.  She was a statuesque and noble stage presence.  I did, however, find her vocalism rather anonymous.  Her soprano perhaps lacks the ultimate in range of tonal colour, and also has a tendency to spread at the very top.  Her numbers also seemed to lack in a sense of individuality, with no attempt to ornament the line and make us believe that she was the only person capable of singing this music.  Her Contessa was admirable, but it could have been much more than that.  Gyula Orendt was a vigorous and determined stage presence, fully engaged with de Beer’s vision.  He also made much of the text fully bringing out all the Count’s single-mindedness.  His drier baritone contrasted nicely with Schuen’s fuller tones, and he dispatched his aria with determination, the high F-sharp emerging with impressive ease. 

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

The remainder of the cast represented the high standards one expects at this address.  Marcellina seems to sit a little high for Monica Bacelli’s mezzo, the higher reaches betraying a slight loss in tone quality, but she dispatched her aria with uninhibited delight and got through it with experience.  Emiliano González Toro was luxury casting in his roles, singing with keen, focused tone, although I did feel his stutter as Don Curzio was way overdone to the extent that it held the evening up even more.  Both Maurizio Muraro and Leonardo Galeazzi boomed appropriately in their roles, while Elisabeth Boudreault gave us a crystalline and elegantly sung Barbarina.

Photo: © Jean-Louis Fernandez

This was something of a mixed evening.  While the musical rewards were considerable, particularly from Fuchs, Schuen and Desandre, dramatically it was all something of a mess.  It felt that de Beer was unwilling to trust the piece or her principals to drive the action forward, instead giving the audience too much to look at and drowning the piece itself in a visual overload.  It also felt that de Beer failed to mine the humanity within and present in Mozart’s music, instead focusing on the bedroom farce aspects of the work (a legitimate approach to take, admittedly), in a piece where there is a much deeper seam to mine.   The audience, while rather quiet during the piece itself – not many laughs as the evening unfolded – rewarded the cast with a warm and generous ovation. 

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