David McVicar is back at Covent Garden to direct this revival of his production of Mozart's most perfect opera. When it was done last season I wrote very positively about the production and music making. That review contains many of my thoughts about the piece and my basic thoughts on the production, so I won't recap, but this time I wasn't nearly so captivated.
The biggest problem was surely John Eliot Gardiner in the pit, whose approach to this music is sounding distinctly "old school" these days. Banning all vibrato, insisting on brisk tempos and dessicated, spiky textures, expunging any legato playing or sense of the longer line and leaving Mozart's ravishing orchestration undernourished due to poor balance were all perhaps hallmarks of early "historically informed performances" but we've moved on so far since the 1960's and 1970's. Just look at the magnificent work of the OAE or William Christie with Les Arts Florissants for modern HIP where the music is allowed to live and breathe again. (The recently departed Charles Mackerras and Colin Davis were also bastions of truly great Mozart performance with modern orchestras and contemporary taste.) The orchestral playing was scrappy throughout the entire evening - ensemble was poor, there were endless tuning problems and stage and pit were very often totally at odds. Banning a modern orchestra from using vibrato or legato is a very risky business - deprived of expressive resource, players feel very exposed and on edge and as a result tend to make poor music.
I found David McVicar's direction very fussy this time: the stage positively teems with extras, presumably to provide a sense of the daily bustle of the household and reflect the hectic activity of the score, but the result is always the appearance of "stage business" without any feeling of real life. Perhaps it was Leah Hausman's revival direction last time, or a cast that were better at acting, but for whatever reason, the show was more successful then. Character regie is very detailed throughout, but only intermittently convinces - what was with all the direct addresses to the audience, double takes, knowing glances and other self consciously "stagey" acting? The result wasn't bad exactly, but was quite uninvolving emotionally with little pain to temper the slapstick.
All in all a so-so revival.
Photos copyright Mark Douet/ROH