Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro / Salzburg 2006 (1)

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.  

guth-figaro-susanna-countess 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!

(Next section here.)

19 thoughts on “Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro / Salzburg 2006 (1)

  1. There is also Contessa’s fur coat, that keeps dropping off. I wonder if there is some message in how many times it does that… Or maybe not.

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    1. There may well be. I didn’t notice how many times it fell off her shoulders; I know that it happens once in the introduction to “porgi, amor,” and again a bit later when she gets agitated about something; there maybe another time or two that I’ve forgotten. What’s your sense of what might be going on there?

      I thought the coat belonged to the count, though, and she was wearing it because she missed him – it seems very big for her, and when he comes in for the first time he picks it up as if it’s his, and goes through the pockets looking for something.

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  2. I think the overall gloom of this Figaro really bothers a lot of people. If you walk in (or pop the dvd in the player) thinking it’s a typically frothy Nozze (but who in their right mind would actually expect that these days–especially if one sees Claus Guth attached to it) you might feel blindsided and a bit let down. OTOH, if you feel like one more “traditional” Figaro will make you nuts, a production like this may just be what you need. While Guth does tend to suck the joy out of anything he touches, he is never boring!

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    1. I definitely remember that “joy sucked out” feeling the first time I saw this! I think that’s where the insight of this production is, or part of it: that what seems to be the emotional core of the thing, the opera’s general good nature, and the sweetness of Figaro and Susanna trying their best to just get married and have things work out – that one can remove that, or part of that, and the whole thing still stands, and is just as interesting.

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      1. To me this is the production in which we can see the pain associated with these kind of relationship issues. Typically in opera we don’t see this, unless somebody get’s a sword in the stomach (if a man) or goes mad (if a woman).

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        1. That’s what I like about Guth’s productions – when they work, they seem to be able to capture the ambiguity and darkness in a lot of human relationships, but at the same time, I’ve never finished watching one thinking that it was depressing.

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    2. I think all three daPonte operas have their dark side and I tend to find frothy readings annoyingly superficial. I think one of the great fallacies of the “traditionalists” is that opera should be superficial and glossy and ignore the darker side. These are people who think Traviata and Tosca should be polished, nice and polite. Give me a few dead crows anytime!

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          1. Quite wise. I would rate that Trav. as NSFW. Although in my review i noted that it was not particularly sexy per se. it is well… just don’t watch at work. its not slick, shiny, and pretty…but worth seeing once. Although by the time I got done describing to my Dad, he decided not to watch it at all. 🙂

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        1. I suppose the benefit of being audio-oriented more than visually is where the production might have been deemed polite but the performance itself, musically, was up-in-yer-grill apeshit. This has happened a fair amount at the Met over the years — like that time ASvO donned steel toed boots and kicked the fuck out of “Parto, parto”, or that completely off the hook Rigoletto quartet from ’87 (?), or that time Mark Delavan single-handedly rescued the most phoned-in performance of Aida ever recorded.

          On the visual side? The Queen of the Night’s entrance in the old Chagall production. And that Everding/Schneider-Siemssen Tristan, I’m sorry, I know people hated it who weren’t sitting in the right places, but that production was the height of Awesome. And Jonathan Miller’s Pelleas. And the Mark Lamos/Michael Yeargan Wozzeck, if you had the right people on stage and you yourself were sitting in the orchestra. Even better if you got family circle standing room for Giulio Cesare afterward on a whim — that production sucked but it was 1999 and all about this new kid David Daniels.

          Seriously, regie fazeth me not, but last time I had the shivers was 2005, listening to the Proms Walkuere live over the BBC’s then pokey little stream and battling malware all the way, because Terfel’s first Walkuere run was note for note revelatory.

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          1. It’s true, sometimes the musical performances can render the look of the thing (for better or for worse) irrelevant. Wish I’d been there in 1999 to hear David Daniels! That must have been amazing.

            The one thing I think I ought to have done with this Figaro is to listen to it separately from watching it – I did that with the famous parking-garage Clemenza from Salzburg, and the audio-only on that tracked with what I got from the visuals. I should do that with this Figaro one of these days to see if I get similar results.

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              1. He’s one of those singers who I always think is younger than he actually is (he’s 47). I can’t remember when I first heard him – it was baroque something or other, but I’d have to ransack the archives to put my finger on what it was.

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