Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro / L. A. Philharmonic 5-17-13

I am not sure that I formed a coherent picture of this production as a musical performance, because I was sitting behind the stage, so while I could see most of what was going on, the orchestra had a weird reversed quality and usually the singers had their backs to me. On the other hand, remember how they had to issue me and several other people different tickets because they had to put a thing where we were originally seated? Well, turns out that the thing was the chorus. Half on one side of the hall, half on the other, in the last rows of seats. They were directly behind me. Never have I heard the women’s chorus parts in such, ah, brutal detail. Sort of fun, though.

Hearing the orchestra flipped like that was sort of neat too. The sound was very heavy on winds, brass, and tympani. Occasionally, if the singers were on the part of the stage that curved around either side of the orchestra to the front, they could be a little muffled – I noticed this at (I think) the end of “non piu andrai” when Figaro was out near the audience. However, I could hear well enough on the whole. Certainly I don’t feel done out of my $65.

Indeed, I was enjoying this unfamiliar aural perspective on the overture with my eyes closed, and when I opened them, there were suddenly a lot of people on the stage. The stage director for this production, Christopher Alden, did something similar to Claus Guth’s production for Salzburg, in that during the overture and the beginning of Figaro and Susanna’s first duet, all the other characters are on the stage too, and we see a sort of recap of the situation – Cherubino is in a corner writing his song, the count and countess are standing side by side, the count getting distracted by the ladies (except for his wife) and the countess trying to draw him back before losing interest and wandering over to see what Cherubino is up to. She was on stage long enough that when Figaro and Susanna reached the point in the first scene when the countess’s bell rings, the countess could borrow a bell from the percussionist and ring for the maid herself.

This production makes good use of the fact that the performance space is a concert hall and not a theater. Characters are often on stage when in the story they are not, wandering through and adding little touches of subtext – e.g. at one point Barberina appears and tears up Cherubino’s song. This opera, however it is staged, often has an “everyone is in some way present even when they’re not” quality, and this production makes that quality literal. And there are some nice little touches as far as interaction with the orchestra is concern. I mean, given that the orchestra is right there, why not? Basilio (William Ferguson, who gets to sing that often-omitted aria in Act IV, and does so very nicely) makes his first entrance in Act I by climbing out of the woodwind section – he had been disguised as a clarinet player, and he makes creepy use of the clarinet in his interaction with Susanna. At one point later on, Cherubino offers maestro Dudamel a cigarette. (He refuses.) This Cherubino (Rachel Frenkel) has a bit of swagger. In addition to the cigarette, he strolls in in Act IV singing the melody to “fin ch’han dal vino” from Don Giovanni. I also particularly liked Frankel’s phrasing at the end of “non so più”.

This production is full of interesting little touches, but I am still thinking through the general concept. The stage you see is a polished wood floor, lit in red, with a bed, a rug and racks of clothes off to stage left and a squarish table thing on the floor on the right, which alternately serves for chair, bed, and a few other miscellaneous items. There is no chair in Act I – when Cherubino and later the count hide, they simply sit on the floor and cover their faces. Act IV contains a few metal trees and pavilion umbrellas to represent the garden. (The trees are rather cage-like, and Figaro, as he is watching what he thinks is the seduction of his wife, is literally inside of one.) The stage setting is mostly just visual gestures and a few props – Cherubino and the countess have rather a lot of fun with that red ribbon of hers – the vibe of the production is as much in the lighting and the costumes than in any kind of elaborate scenery.

The overwhelming color impression of this production is a sort of dull boudoiry red. Or, red and black, with some shadows and a few splashes of lighter colors, particularly with some of the costumes. Christopher Maltman as the Count sports a white suit early on, with a more snazzy gold-gray number for Act III; Figaro (Edwin Crossley-Mercer) walks around shirtless for most of Act I, and later dons wedding clothes that – well, I am not really a judge of fashion, so I’ll leave it there. Susanna has a pink dress that is somewhere between an elaborate slip and a child’s party dress. Between the dress, the cascade of blonde hair, and the impression of Susanna being sort of cringey and tense – Susanna is cringey and tense, not the singer, Malin Christensson, who gave a lovely performance of “deh, vieni,” with some very pretty ornamentation near the end, and whose voice sounds almost mezzo-y; there is a weight to the lower part of it that is really nice – Susanna, at least from the back, between the pink dress and the hair and the ballet flats and the way she stood looked a bit like Alice in Wonderland. Cherubino has a black suit with a little frock coat and, in Act IV, what appeared to be a dark green leather trench. The Countess (Dorothea Röschmann) wore a gauzy red thing in Acts I-II that was cut so that she had to hold it up whenever she wanted to move so as not to trip, a really cool gold dress (matching the count’s suit) for Act IV (I think?) and a slightly alarming hairstyle. It was very tall.

The impression I had from all of this was of the drama as a sort of darkly stylish psychological play. The emphasis is on the aspects of the interactions among the characters that are independent of the 18th-century-ness of the libretto. Indeed, it’s very easy to forget that Susanna and Figaro are servants. Susanna is less lady’s maid than a sort of representation of all ingenues ever – that pink dress! (The count is not the only one who finds her youth appealing – Bartolo too tries to grope her at one point.) The countess, especially early on, is dressed in red, red red – it would be hard not to notice. Her clothes are red, her bed is red, the ribbon she and Cherubino fool around with is red. And in contrast again we have Marcellina, who is dressed in black – and, interestingly enough, is given a role in the bait-and-switch in Act IV. Rather than two women in identical black hoods and capes, we have three. Archetypes much?

This moderately abstracted quality is reinforced by the absence of the chorus from the stage. They are, as noted, back behind the stage and are hidden (or, I presume, sort of hidden, given that I couldn’t see the effect from far off) by a screen. There are no servants or peasants in this production. Barberina (the sweet-voiced Simone Osborne) for example, wanders about in a dark gold/black dress that looks like a sort of junior version of the gold number the countess sports in the second half.

I have said a lot about clothes in describing this. The costumes are hard not to notice, and there are two racks of clothes lined up on stage in Acts I and II. Susanna, the Countess and the Count dodge around between them during “Susanna, or via sortite,” and during the “oh, what a scandal this will be!” section the count is clinging to the countess and the countess is clinging to the clothing rack. This is definitely a production that emphasizes this as a story of roles and disguises.

The count here is Christopher Maltman, who is more than at home in this type of production. He sounds great – I particularly enjoyed “hai vinto la causa” and the following aria. (Also, to return briefly to props, when he returns with a tool to break down the closet door, what he returns with is a great big percussionist’s mallet, which he kindly returns to the percussionist when the count has finished menacing his wife with it.) I got a bit of a surprise with Marcellina. I heard her before I saw her, and my first thought was “well, that’s a rather nice sound” and a moment later I saw her – it was Ann Murray. John Del Carlo’s Bartolo was both blustery and creepy. His skeezy handsiness with Susanna seemed perfect.

As the countess, Dorothea Röschmann began with some, ah, I guess I will call them interpretive liberties with pitch in “porgi, amor” but the funny thing about that was that even though the intonation made me tense up a little, I was aware of how cleanly and perfectly every phrase fit together. The architecture of the thing was perfect. This singer has made this part her own and it shows. Not just in the solo arias, but in the recitatives and ensembles too – there’s something about the combination of the sound itself and the precision and depth of the interpretation that gets me every time.

When she emerged at the top of a steep staircase for “e Susanna non vien” I thought – not again! I mean, we all know she can sing “dove sono” while descending a flight of stairs – there is ample proof – but this does not mean that she has to do it all the time. However, she reached the bottom of the steps relatively soon. And the aria itself brought the house down – the applause was noisy and extended, the loudest roar I heard all night, except when she took her turn to bow at the end.

Oddly enough, though, the part of her performance here that hit me the hardest was not either of the big numbers. Instead, it was the moment near the end where the count asks the countess for forgiveness, and she has the words “I am kinder than you” or something like that as she forgives him – that moment in the opera has never struck me as powerfully as it did last night. It brought tears to my eyes. And in the opera’s final choral number she sang with a sort of intense abandon that was pretty wonderful.

So. Well worth the awkwardly placed seating! I hope to be back to hear it all again on the 23rd.

(Impressions from the performance of the 23rd here.)

5 thoughts on “Mozart – Le Nozze di Figaro / L. A. Philharmonic 5-17-13

  1. “that moment in the opera has never struck me as powerfully as it did last night. It brought tears to my eyes”

    That was the bit that got me when I first encountered Figaro. It was the Schwarzkopf recording and that just did for me.

    In an odd bit of synchronicity I ran into basically the whole Against the Grain “Figaro’s Wedding” gang at Dialogues last night.


    1. Cool! (meeting the whole Figaro gang). Toronto’s music scene sounds really friendly.

      I have one Schwarzkopf recording, a live one – I think it was the first Figaro I ever heard. I should go back to it one of these days.


      1. I suppose the Toronto scene is friendly up to a point. Certainly it’s hard to imagine, I think, seeing the senior management of the Met at a fundraising party for a small “guerilla” opera company. OTOH the relative smallness of the opera scene does mean there’s a definite sense among singers of who is “in” and who isn’t.


  2. For me as well that scene of forgiveness was the thing that really caught my heart; in my case it was the ROH production with DR and Gerald Finley.

    Thank you for the report; you can really observe and remember alot on a one go!


    1. I love that ROH one too – very different from the more regie treatments, but great in a different way.

      You should see me frantically scribbling notes like a maniac during the intermissions! If I lost my notebook it’d be like losing part of my brain.


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