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Tuesday 3 July 2012

Le Nozze di Figaro at the Royal College of Music


I chose to review the second cast because usually they never get any press coverage, and it doesn't seem fair. Sadly I didn't see the other cast, but there it is. Luckily this cast was uniformly of a high standard, so I didn't feel the need to be blandly noncomittal in this review - all of them surely have careers ahead of them, but as is to be expected, they are not all equally finished as performers yet.

In this production, the sets were rather simple - clean white boxy rooms which descend from the ceiling and cocoon each other, and a four part screen at the front which had the words "Le Nozze di Figaro" on it. Not sure why this was written there, other than to break up the white. The rooms also had the beginnings of the famous arias on them, ostensibly to show you who the room belonged to I'm guessing, but no doubt also to break up the monotony of minimalist white. Quite vanilla then, literally and metaphorically. Unfortunately the direction reflected this - traditional, which isn't bad, but a bit plain and lacking in dramatic momentum. Figaro is an opera that really doesn't require a big budget to be done superbly - its all in the wit and subtlety of the social hierarchies and interactions (and that score!), which means you need a really sensitive director who is up to the job. To cut a long story short, the main problem with Jean Claude Auvray's production was that it lacked tension and dramatic impetus largely because the count was not in the least bit threatening - if he's just a buffoon, the endless vacillations to avoid his wrath seem frivolous and pointless, the dramatic and musical linchpin of the opera (the Act II finale) falls flat, the class tensions aren't explorable, and the final reconciliation of the count and countess loses some of its poignancy.

Emilie Renard as Cherubino

There were lots of nice unusual touches though - Susanna getting very angry at Figaro's insensitivity at the end of Act I; being able to see inside the closet in Act II; the lights going up for Figaro's Act IV aria about women, and he walks into the audience addressing us personally. But every time, the novelty was squandered, the idea wasn't developed enough, or didn't actually change the drama at all, or teach us anything new about the characters. On the plus side, the production was energetic and fast paced, so rarely felt boring, but too often the young singers seemed to just be going through the motions of the plot, rather than really having compelling reasons for their actions.

Musically this was a strong evening, and the cast really worked well as an ensemble. The RCM orchestra mostly played very well, a few intonation issues aside, and the score bristled with energy and dash as it should. Sometimes, the larger structures didn't seem to hang together quite as well as I would have liked, but maybe this is cavilling in a student performance.

For me the stand out in the cast was Emilie Renard as Cherubino. I first saw her in a concert performance of La Celemenza Di Tito and thought she was superb vocally there, so it's very satisfying to see that she is so good on stage too. She was the only person who presented a fully rounded and believable character, with subtle emotions, charming points of characterisation, never over or under acted in this often misjudged role. Her first aria,  Non so piu..., was exquisitely sung, with a beautiful tone and affecting ardency. She clearly enjoys the singing, but is never given to show boating - just really great to watch and hear. Probably precisely because it sounds so simple and is so exposed, her second aria Voi che sapete... didn't seem quite as ideal, but no doubt her interpretation will settle in time. I expect she'll sing this role everywhere very soon.

This cast's Countess, Abigail Mitchell, was sick so the other cast's Countess, Anastasia Prokofieva, stepped in. She has a very interesting voice which may be very beautiful indeed one day - she certainly delivered the goods beauty wise, in the two excrutiatingly difficult arias, negotiating the passagio admirably, and her Piú docile io sono at the end of Act 4 was as special as one was hoping for. However, her Italian was often quite muddled, and the vibrato was much too wide in the recitatives to hear what she was saying. Additionally, she wasn't really stylistically on the right lines - although I fully encourage the attempt to sing every phrase legatissimo as befits this character, there were a few too many portamentos for comfort. She still has plenty of time to develop and as I say, she has the makings of a gorgeous voice. Acting wise, (and I blame the director) her Countess was much too vampish for my tastes, really indulging in Cherubino's affections and acting completely inappropriately for a woman of her status and class. The result was that she seemed just as indulgent and vain and almost as hypocritical as the Count, which is an interpretation to be sure, but for me not the most effective or moving one.

Filipa can Eck and Bradley Travis
Filipa van Eck is really natural on stage, ultra smiley, ebullient and plucky, with a lovely youthful lyric voice that seems right in line with the traditional picture we have of Susanna. Occasionally I wanted a bit more emotional range from her, but she's a good actress, has a very fine voice and was clearly the centre of the show. A real charmer.

Bradley Travis' Figaro was similarly well sung, but his acting seemed a little more generic; not bad by any means, and again it might have been the fault of the direction, but just a little too blank to render a fully believable character. Morgan Pearse's count was splendid vocally, with an interesting timbre, lots of nuance, but as already mentioned physically lacked the dignity and menace that he needs. His Act III aria Vedro mentr'io sospiro was fantastic though.

One thing that I absolutely hate in Mozart is when the asides (and there are so many) are delivered directly to the audience, breaking the fourth wall, rather than as an internal commentary of the sort that occurs in real life all the time. This connects to the bigger issue of how arias should be presented. Personally I want to feel as if I'm looking into the scene, overhearing a moment of personal reflection, anger, jealousy, lust or whatever. Never that the character is telling me what he is thinking or feeling. It's a subtle but important distinction, and was another problem in general with the direction in this production. Only Renard fully avoided this pitfall.

Hannah Sanidison, Pnini Grubner and Vasili Karpiak
The smaller roles were all well taken. Best of all was Vasili Karpiak's Basilio (the music master) who was finally played as I always have wanted to hear him - as an italianate bel canto tenor, with a sob in the voice, every phrase milked for its lyricism, and with the occasional interpolated high note. He was also subtly characterised in actions too in a character that often barely registers. Great stuff. Pnini Grubner's Dr. Bartolo was pleasingly gruff and very well sung, and Hannah Sandison as Marcellina had a very pleasing and timbre. Anna Anandarajah's has a very sweet and pliant voice, but it is also rather dark and seemed a little inappropriate for the 12 year old Barbarina. Strangely in what is after all meant to be a show case for these students, the commonly cut Basilio and Marcellina arias were cut here too... I fully understand why this is done normally (though I like Marcellina's one as a feminist aria and foil for Figaro's anti-women rant) but I personally always regret the choice, and thought it particularly inexcusable here.

Overall I enjoyed myself very much, and it's always exciting to see new talent emerging and blooming.

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