Based on my unscientific sampling of 1. YouTube comments and 2. people I know on the internet, this production tends to elicit strong reactions. Some of us squealed with delight from the very first viewing. Others could only sit there, knees to chest, shivering and rocking back and forth and hugging a tattered program from the Metropolitan Opera for comfort. Still others of us engaged in a certain amount of snide commentary while nevertheless buying the DVD and watching bits of it over and over. I was in the third category. I have been known to squeal and jump up and down in certain opera-related situations, but I didn’t – initially – for this. And I am not a booklet-cuddler under any circumstances.
In visual terms the production is spare. The core of the set is an interior with a staircase that curves up and around to the left. Sometimes there are stairs that go down as well; sometimes not. There is one large window on the left. For Act IV, in the garden, the lighting resembles the shadows of leaves at night, but nothing else changes. The Countess’s room in Act II is simply a room, with again a window on the left. In all the spaces, the paint on the walls is peeling and there are drifts of dead leaves on the floor. Often there are crows, usually “live” ones perched in the window, but also occasionally a dead one on the floor. In general, the Almaviva Palace is not a particularly reliable space. The door on the landing of the staircase sometimes opens, and sometimes doesn’t. Other doors are equally finicky, even when no one locks them. All of these spaces themselves are bare. With the exception of a few necessary objects – Figaro’s contract with Marcellina, Susanna’s note to the count, the pin Barberina loses, and, very memorably, the Count’s fur-lined greatcoat – and one extra character, there is nothing rattling around in this production but the characters and their relationships to one another.
And these relationships are not quite what one conventionally expects with this opera. Susanna really is having an affair with the Count – or at least, she wants to, and feels bad about it. The Countess alternately clings to Susanna and pushes her away. (Literally: the Countess often veers, in short order, from a stiff, upset “don’t touch me!” gesture to hugging her servant’s knees or resting her head in her lap.) Figaro slices up Cherubino’s arm with a piece of glass and smears his face with the blood during “non più andrai.” The recurring bevy of peasant girls look like inmates of a mid-twentieth century German reform school (it’s the combination of the uniforms and the braids worn wound around the head.)
The way this makes one feel is communicated by how Maestro Harnoncourt handles the opera’s overture. The tempo is such that it’s like hearing the piece via a series of magnifying lenses of different strengths that are moving around (remember that old Windows screensaver where you’d get a sort of magnified bump that would bounce around the image of your desktop? I thought of that). Some sounds or phrases or moments seem to loom into focus in a way that they otherwise don’t. It’s not painfully slow all the way; there is just a feeling that one is seeing aspects of it that one usually doesn’t. I felt the same way about the way the production handles the relationships among the characters. The concept might be offputting at first, but you end up seeing things you might otherwise not.
Tomorrow: apples, feathers, and unicycles!
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