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Monday 4 March 2013

Le Nozze di Figaro at Guildhall


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
Martin Lloyd-Evans new production for the Guildhall updates things to contemporary America, with the count transformed into a Republican Governor, the Countess his neglected media wife, and Figaro and Susanna and the others "the help". Cherubino is a stereotype of an American high schooler, and it's not clear what he's doing hanging around the American upper classes. Virtually every other male character becomes another grey suit and utterly indistinct from one another. It's OK, though not particularly interesting as a concept, but the main problem is that it's barely developed - there are power suits, TV news screens and political slogans ("Today's Illegals, Tomorrow's Democrats" ironic considering Almaviva's suspiciously Hispanic sounding name), but basically there is no significant impact on how the story is told, especially on the subject of class division, and actually some of the updating serves to make the story less credible than normal. There were also numerous incongruencies in the characterisation. Would a man of the social status of a Governor really throw himself at the feet of a maid he was trying to bed? Would a middle aged Governor's wife really countenance an affair with a high schooler? Would she really fail to cower as her husband re-enters the room brandishing a blunt object when just two minutes before he had slapped her to the ground in a rage? Would Figaro really just come into the room and sit on his employers' bed? Too many moments like these muddied the waters dramatically.

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.

Hadleigh Adams and Ben McAteer
credit: Clive Barda
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.

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.

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