Swingin’ ’60s Figaro Almost Makes It

Review by: Robert Levine

Artistic Quality: 8

Sound Quality: 10

Despite some qualification, Glyndebourne’s new Figaro (summer 2012) is a delight. The curtain opens during the overture on the outside of a Spanish mansion—just what we might expect from an opera set on the outskirts of Seville—with shiny tiles, Moorish arches, and handsome latticework, and townsfolk bustling back and forth. It’s startling to see a circa late-1960s red sports car pull up and have the Almavivas get out: they’re coming home from somewhere or settling into their summer getaway. The Count is the very picture of not-such-great-taste, sporting a page-boy haircut and costumed in a velvet suit with bell-bottomed pants and a wide-lapelled, multi-colored shirt. He obviously is quite a swinging dude, and director Michael Grandage and his wonderful designer Christopher Oram have placed the opera in the decade of the flower children. Will this work?

We meet Figaro and Susanna, dressed more moderately (she would appear to be pregnant in a black outfit with white collar, but it’s never mentioned) and nicely familiar. She is spunky and he seems like a nice guy, and he certainly doesn’t like the fact that his boss wants to sleep with his fiancée, although she seems able to take care of herself. And why should Figaro like it? This is the 1960s or ’70s, and despite the fact that Franco is still in power, the Count’s request is not a feudal right; it’s nothing but bullying. And so Beaumarchais’ and da Ponte’s satire on class war no longer exists, and that tends to be the crux of the opera in its original setting.

Instead, we get the never-ending battle of the sexes, a look at an unhappy marriage, and a rather nasty, wealthy guy with a sense of entitlement along with a pretty good comedy peopled by what seem like real people. During “Non piu andrai”, which Figaro sings while the Count is present, the two men hang out like chums, Figaro leaning with an arm on the Count’s shoulder. Susanna never curtsies and she seems genuinely concerned with cheering up the Countess. If you’re willing to forego the pre-Revolutionary subtext, you’ll have a fine time, especially watching the cast do the twist at the wedding and during the finale.

The absolutely natural stage action eschews slapstick and vulgarity and the singers seem more than happy to adapt. Vito Priante’s Figaro, shorn of class anger, is a bit mild, but his stage presence and singing are extraordinary. Rhythmically precise throughout, he eats up “Aprite un po’…” in the last act and is superb in ensembles. Lydia Teuscher’s Susanna is a rich-voiced, non-soubrette, observant Countess-in-the-making; and of course, within this context she might some day have the same social standing. Sally Matthews, if she had a trill for the end of “Dov’e sono”, would be a perfect Countess: her predicament is very clear, and you sense that she wishes she were more lighthearted, more able to adjust to the swinging attitudes going on around her. The voice itself is a gorgeous, full lyric. Audun Iversen’s Count is a sloppy, privileged tyrant, all the more frustrated because no one will pay any attention to his nastiness. His singing is the least neat of all, but he’s a powerful presence. Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino is perfect—boyish and sassy and nimble.

Class acts Ann Murray and Andrew Shore, both a bit vocally worn, are nonetheless a terrific Marzellina and Bartolo, and Alan Oke’s Basilio is snidely right-on. (Neither he nor Marzellina get their last-act arias.) Sarah Shafer is a fine Barbarina, looking to be about 14 years old. And as mentioned, Oram’s luxurious sets add to the special feel of the production.

I’m somewhat stumped by Robin Ticciati’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment. The instruments are period but the approach is mid-20th century—not slow or heavy, really, but somehow lacking the zip we expect these days. The finale of Act 2 is wonderfully clear but lacks the “accidental” mania it should have. There are plenty of laughs from the Glyndebourne audience, but the whole affair is not the insane day Mozart envisioned. The preferred DVD versions are Pappano’s from Covent Garden (Opus Arte) and Jacobs’ (on BelAir); nonetheless, this new one is fresh and charming and a good bet.



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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Pappano (Opus Arte); Jacobs (BelAir)


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