This production of Figaro was designed by Jean-Pierre Ponnelle (it’s distinct from the film version of the opera that Ponnelle made in 1976) and peformed at the Met. I have it because it’s part of my Interminable Metropolitan Opera Box Set of Death which I have been wading through since, like, January or so. But it’s not half bad. Actually, it’s pretty great, music-wise.
Visually, though, it’s a little drab. The set does not change substantially from act to act – it’s a grimy, shabby 18th-century interior with a recessed area in the center that serves successively as the Countess’s bedroom, the hall of the palace and the garden. In Act I there is a passageway up above and behind with a window that looks down into Figaro and Susanna’s room. My initial impression of Act I was that perhaps the Count and Countess were still working on the whole ‘servants’ quarters’ thing and had left Figaro and Susanna to camp out for a few days in a downmarket production of La Clemenza di Tito. Also, was it Ponnelle that designed the sets for the Met’s Idomeneo? This looks sort of like that.
There are a few symbolic rather than literal touches, e.g. in Act I Susanna and Figaro’s room contains a great big portrait of the count hanging from the ceiling – he’s always in the room! Get it?! Yeah. And Figaro gets to sing to it in “se vuol ballare” too. I snark, but I actually didn’t mind it. It made sense. And most productions find some way of getting the count into the room before he actually shows up – in other versions his boots are in the room, for example, or his coat, or something like that. This is one of the things about this opera, isn’t it? There’s always someone metaphorically in the room who isn’t literally there, or someone that is in the room but no one else realizes they are, or someone in the wrong room at the wrong time, and so on.
The costumes are nearly all shades of brown, blue, cream and gray-to-black, although Frederica von Stade as Cherubino gets some seriously impressive ruffled sleeves, not to mention a wig (worn only sometimes, unfortunately) that looks like it might have been nicked from David Bowie’s character in Labyrinth and/or one of the guys from Whitesnake. Or maybe it belongs to the Countess. (Maybe the Countess nicked it from one of the guys in Whitesnake?)
The initial impression that you get from this is that this production is fairly conventional. The sets are literal, the costumes are period-appropriate, and there are no falling feathers, apples, ninjas or other things of this kind.
This is not the full story, however. I think the best way to get at this is to begin with Ruggero Raimondi’s Figaro. I enjoyed Raimondi’s performance very much. In addition to singing well, he gives the barber an edge: rather than the confident, cheerful fellow you sometimes see, this guy is kind of pissed. There’s a feeling of resentful aggression to his encounters with the count, for example. And “non più andrai” is not entirely what I would call light-hearted chaffing. Susanna does not get to join in the mockery, either, as she sometimes does, and at one point we see her looking a bit worried. (Also, at around 0.45 I love the descending phrases in the strings that follow Figaro plucking off and tossing down Cherubino’s finery.)
This take on Figaro made sense to me because you get the impression that Figaro is angry because he does not ultimately have very much power. He’s a servant, after all. In Act III, when he says that he is a gentleman, the others in the scene – Curzio, Basilio, the Count and Marcellina, all laugh at him, humiliatingly, for a long time. He’s not confident that he can make this all work out. Wit alone does not always win out over the power of the nobility. This opera and the play it’s based on are very much steeped in the social tensions of the eighteenth century, and here you get a little taste of that.
(Next section here.)