Mozart is often seen as a very good match for young voices, and while it is less demanding stamina and volume wise than much of the standard repertoire, there is also little that is so exacting and exposed vocally. While I have been impressed in the past by some student productions of Mozart, this evening also outlined some of the pitfalls of conventional wisdom.
|Catherine Backhouse as Cherubino|
credit: Clive Barda
While sitting in the theatre it was not at all obvious how the opening sequence related to the rest of the opera to me - apparently it was the smuggling in of illegal immigrants for the Governor's household which serves to underline his hypocrisy (I only understood this when I bumped into someone at the tube who had worked on it, as well as the significance of the Count's gift of a passport), so I'm willing to entertain that I missed more. These interferences aside, what mostly registered was a staticism in the outer Acts and a lack of sharpness in the acting with intentions only half heartedly acted on. It felt like a long evening. Figaro is all about detail, warmth and pain, it's all there in the score, and a moving and powerful dramatic realisation needs to be much more clearly tied to the music.
The production is double cast and I saw the second cast. Unfortunately, I didn't really feel that any of these young singers were fully ready to tackle their roles, quite unlike the recent Royal College production I witnessed. A part of the problem may well have been the set, which had everyone singing inside a small letterbox like room which severely limited movement and may have affected the sound that reached the audience, and it must be said that the acoustics of the Silk Street Theatre are very dead and unflattering.
Most impressive perhaps was Ben McAteer as Count Almaviva who sang with a very wide range of dynamic control and excellent textual nuance, though occasionally resorted to shouting. His "Contessa perdono" was very moving. Hadleigh Adams had the notes of Figaro, though had difficulties with the diction. Raphaela Papadakis was an even happier Susanna than we normally see and although this is a promising soubrette voice, at the moment there is not yet the vocal ease and fluency that the role requires - quite often notes felt squeezed and held which made the phrasing suffer. As the Countess Magdalena Molendowska also revealed a promising voice which will surely be quite beautiful one day, but the line is constantly broken up, and while she was good in the ensembles, the Countess' two arias, some of the most deceptively difficult that Mozart wrote, proved too great a challenge at this stage. I wonder whether she was undersinging and holding back too much for stylistic reasons - there was far greater vocal freedom and an exciting vibrancy when she sang out more.
|Hadleigh Adams and Ben McAteer|
credit: Clive Barda
Opera orchestras at UK conservatoires usually seem under rehearsed and scrappy, probably because the students are so busy with other things but it highlights quite how difficult good orchestral accompaniment is when one realises how good many of these players are individually. Generally, conductor Dominic Wheeler marshalled things quite well, and the all important Act II Finale was beautifully realised. Elsewhere there were serious woodwind tuning issues, and the Act IV Finale wasn't as wondrous or momentous as maybe it should have been. At least he was attentive to what the singers were doing on stage, and ensemble was mostly very tight.
I wonder whether the concept hampered these young performers in getting more fully into their roles, but this was not the most convincing evening I have experienced at the Guildhall.