(Previous section here.)
One more thing about the Cherub and Cherubino. I was reminded yesterday (thanks, Rob!) of the moment in Act I when Cherubino finds one of the Cherub’s feathers on the floor and then reaches back, startled, to feel behind his own shoulder as if to check if something is missing. As if the names didn’t make it plain enough, he has a special connection to this other character. After all, Cherubino is sort of an odd and ambiguous little thing, right? He’s a boy played by a woman; he’s neither a child nor an adult; he exercises a rather strange erotic pull on the Countess; he infuriates the count, who accidentally kisses him at one point in the story; his relationship to Susanna seems almost sisterly, but then he tries to either kiss her or grope her or some variation thereof when he meets her in the garden in Act IV; he is consistently places he should not be and causing problems others would rather not deal with. Given both the Cherub’s role in this story and Cherubino’s identification with the Cherub, it makes a certain kind of sense that the Count and Figaro basically torture the kid during “non più andrai” at the end of Act I. Figaro slices him up with a piece of glass and the count gleefully joins in the mayhem. Figaro and the Count are at odds, but the type of things that the Cherub/Cherubino pair represent are in the interest of neither of them.
There are one or two other odd little things. In Act IV what used to be the underside of the stairs leading upward is now an upside-down staircase – a sort of mirror image. On the right of the stage, Susanna’s wedding dress is lying on the stairs; a replica is also visible on the upside-down imaginary stairs. There is a moment, too, at the beginning of “tutto è tranquillo e placido” where Figaro himself is doubled. A door under the upside-down stairs opens to reveal an upside down silhouette that looks like him. This is not as strange as it might seem. This act is full of doublings, tricks, self-doubt and impersonations. Indeed, you could read it as a gesture at the point of the whole production – the goal consistently has been to reveal everyone’s own mixed and disguised motives.
Across the board the performers do the concept justice. I already mentioned Schäfer as Cherubino, but I will say it again – this is beautifully sung, and she’s one of those women who can do “boyish” with no trouble at all. Netrebko communicates Susanna’s ambivalence and her unhappiness about her own ambivalence very convincingly. Sometimes the acting is almost too broad/comic for the vibe of the production – e.g. with that “who is as happy as me?” line in the quartet after the great reveal of Figaro’s parentage (this moment is, naturally, played a little ironically here) we get two exaggerated facial expressions where one would probably do. But you can’t argue with how she sounds.
Bo Skovhus’s sweaty, nervous, guilty Count and Dorothea Röschmann’s stretched-to-the-breaking-point Countess are a perfect match for one another. He’s guilty, she’s often on the verge of tears; his fits of rage are broken by moments of remorse; she represses anger and disappointment and hurt and yet comes back for more; you get the sense that on some level, this Count and Countess get off on the drama of betrayal and accusation and self-defense: for a considerable section of Act II there is a mixture of hair-twisting and tears and infliction of pain that is staged so as to suggest that had Susanna not popped out of the dressing room when she did, the two of them would have done it right there on the floor. Röschmann’s “dove sono” in Act III is, like all her best performances, wrenching. The Countess’s distress, humilation, and awakening sense of purpose are unmistakable – and, well, I believe I may have mentioned once or twice before that I like her voice. In general, the way the Countess can move in the blink of an eye from hurt so deep she doesn’t want to be touched or spoken to to a sort of painful, almost embarrassing, clingy vulnerability and back – it’s completely and utterly convincing. This countess is a person. And the acting is in the singing as much as anything you can see. I could listen to Röschmann do subtle things with recitatives for hours on end.
So, this is a much darker and more ambiguous reading of the opera than you normally get. The production focuses on bringing to the surface everyone’s less laudable or obvious motives and desires – even to the point of making us cringe a little, e.g. with Marcellina’s not-entirely-maternal feelings for her son. (This is made pretty obvious in Act IV where, influenced by the Cherub’s presence, she sees two doors, behind one of which is Figaro in his wedding clothes and behind the other is an army of Bartolo look alikes, complete with canes – in this version, Bartolo is disabled and sick – who drag her back into their space with the canes as her “il capro e la capretta” aria ends.) Everything is darker than one expects with this opera, but I don’t get the sense that Guth is forcing in anything that is not in some way there already. And pace some of the folks writing Amazon reviews, I would not say that this version is depressing. It’s different than the conventional treatments, but it hardly leaves you feeling sad.
One small addendum. This is a very visually dense and complicated production. This may be its weak point, given that it’s a production of an opera. What I mean is that when I watch this, I tend to get distracted by what I’m seeing. It’s this complicated little puzzle, and the urge to figure out how it works is hard to ignore. As a result, I tend to get pulled out of the music fairly often by the floating feathers and the sometimes unconventional stage direction. I’m listening, of course, but the music does not always get my undivided attention. What I intend to do – eventually – is rip the audio from this DVD and just listen to that alone and see what happens.