Photo credit: Prudence Upton
Opera Australia’s latest production for its 2022 summer season, an Andy Morton revival of David McVicar’s 2015 production of ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, opened at the Sydney Opera House on January 27and which, according to the Opera Australia ad, is Mozart’s 266and birthday.
January 27and is also the day after Australia Day, the annual holiday that commemorates the raising of the Union Jack in 1788 above Sydney Cove behind Bennelong Point, the promontory on which the Opera House stands. It is amusing to think that Mozart’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’, arguably set against the historical backdrop of a declining European society, is roughly contemporary with European Australia or the European invasion of the country. of Gadigal in indigenous stories.
October 14and 1787, the same day ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ was re-enacted in Prague in place of the planned premiere of Mozart’s ‘Don Giovanni’, the ‘First Fleet’ had landed in Cape Town, South Africa, en route to New Holland: Australia.
Historical reflections seemed appropriate when watching this production. The set, costume design and lighting – by Jenny Tiramani and David Finn, respectively – had an almost documentary realism. The excellence of this aspect of the production was, in fact, the first characteristic of the performance that jumped out. What a pleasure to see sets, costumes and lighting effects that meticulously recreated realistic renderings of 17and century dutch paintings: now 17and paintings of the century in three dimensions!
However, other aspects have raised questions about the interpretation of Mozart’s opera as a historical artifact. Do people go to “The Marriage of Figaro” because they want to witness the portrait of an older society in full mutation? Is it even really about to change? This production and the original play by Beaumarchais on which the opera is based take place at 17and century, not the 18and when that society was truly threatened with impending collapse and irrevocable change. Is it the deliberate attempt to create a distance from historical considerations that attracts an audience? Or are other timeless qualities more likely to bring a modern-day viewer to the theater? Thankfully, this production certainly also had those latter qualities in abundance.
First of all, it was as funny and as fresh as any up-to-date rendition can get. The first act generates humor by the multiplicity of entrances and exits, facilitated by a setting which also shows the corridor through which the characters enter or leave. Comings and goings: French pranksters knew a thing or two about this comedic device, and these were delightfully tied together here with the kind of detailed characterization that gives wit through recognition.
Figaro – baritone Tommaso Barea – leaves after discovering that Count Almaviva has less than noble reasons for moving Figaro and his fiancée, Susanna – soprano Stacey Alleaume – to the room next to his. He raises his hands in a “Bah!” gesture as he storms out, stumbling upon Dr. Bartolo – bass Richard Anderson – and Marcellina – mezzo-soprano Sian Sharp – walking innocently (at least their intentions are unknown at this point) down the hallway outside. It’s an amusing scene, at least as much because, even through so many centuries, one recognizes the irritation that Figaro has shown.
There was also something insolently hilarious about the leitmotif of servants spying on keyholes or caught eavesdropping behind closed doors. Charles Osborne questioned the groundbreaking interpretations of this opera – premiered just three years before the storming of the Bastille in France – in his book ‘The Complete Operas of Mozart’. The constant presence of nonchalantly nosy and unflappable servants in this aristocratic household, however, cleverly conveyed the idea that the hierarchical structures of this society are not as formidable as they first appear. After all, the decline of custom is a key plot ingredient. The lustful count wants to take advantage of the wedding of Figaro and Suzanne to resurrect juice primae noctis: the medieval right of the lord to his servant’s wife on their wedding night. It’s a “right” that everyone on the Almaviva estate had assumed the Count had relegated to the dustbin of history, and a tradition he will, admittedly, fail to resurrect.
Although the sets and lighting effects were realistic depictions of the Count and Countess Almaviva’s Sevillian mansion at different times of the day, Susanna delivered her final number, “Giunse alfin il momento… Deh, vieni, non tardar, oh gioia bella”, in front of a curtain drawn on the stage. It effectively shattered the sense of historical realism just when we needed confirmation that this is a timeless story: a meditation, even, on fidelity, honor, love, and compassion. Australian-Mauritian soprano Stacey Alleaume beautifully conveyed the single-day maturation of a character she had portrayed as tremendously fiery in previous acts. In this production, she appeared as a character with genuinely sympathetic emotions.
It’s all about the music
Of course, people continue to go to the “Marriage of Figaro”, even 236 years after its creation, mainly for the music, and the reading of the score by Italian conductor Andrea Molino honored the timeless humor of Mozart’s conception from the start. With cutting staccato cadential figures and over-the-top sforzato-tinged comedy, the rendition was a perfect homage. There was a wonderful liveliness in Molino’s reading of the overall score. We barely had time to catch our breath before we were thrown into the next issue.
Hardly had any of the characters digested the fact that Figaro is actually Marcellina’s son – and the Count hopes that Marcellina will sue Figaro for breach of promise and gently. this particular path to Susanna – before everyone is rushed. Molino’s interpretation was a marvelous musical reflection of the ‘day of madness’, to quote the main English title of Beaumarchais’s piece on which Lorenzo da Ponte based his libretto.
On the subject of the orchestra, the continuo of the pianofortist Siro Battaglin has added its own witticisms to the musical “tapestry”. An echo of “Rule Britannia”, for example, when the earl announces his proposed appointment as ambassador to London, or even just rising notes under a seemingly innocuous line like: “Why, it’s Susanna of course! ” Sure? we wonder now.
In addition to Alleaume, a formidable cast carried this marvelous musical. Italian baritone Tommaso Barea gave us a Figaro that was easy to sympathize with. “What a lovely lord,” he sang upon discovering the real reason the Count had given him and Susanna a room right next to his, and Barea passed on the sarcasm in space of a sentence that started softly and ended in dripping bitterness. It was a Figaro who wore his heart on his sleeve, perhaps even expressing slight exasperation at the lovesick Cherubino in the burrs’r‘s of his accusation “Narcissito” in the famous aria “Non più andrai”. And as a young boy Cherubino, Iranian-Armenian mezzo-soprano Agnes Sarkis credibly conveyed the overheated enthusiasms of a young man in her star numbers. “Tell me what love is, what can it be”, she sang – “Voi, che sapete” – and her eminent ‘sseemed to reflect a tendency towards the urgency of this issue.
Russian soprano Ekaterina Morozova portrayed the dignified Countess Almaviva, who is the emotional cornerstone of this work. We really felt for her, isolated while she was backstage, at the start of act two. The youthful freshness of her voice made the fact that she no longer held her husband’s attention all the more poignant. There was a wonderful simplicity to her “Dove sono” tune as she asked what had happened to her husband’s vows.
As Count Almaviva, Italian baritone Mario Cassi conveyed a nuanced range of characteristics in the generally unsympathetic tones in which Da Ponte paints his character. There was lust: “I want you to be happy,” he sings in a courteous voice, almost delivering his “felice” in Susanna’s ear. But we also got to share in his joy as he offered the annoying Cherubino a commission in Almaviva’s regiment and sent him off with a sotto voce “You didn’t expect that.” Well, at least I laughed.
Among the ‘secondary characters’, it was refreshing to see a Marcellina – played by mezzo-soprano Sian Sharp – who one might think Susanna suspected of turning Figaro’s head. “The decrepit old Sibyl, she makes me laugh” sang Susanna in their Act One argument, though it was out of long-standing hostility that she said this, as it could not have been a present observation. It made the audience laugh when Marcellina and Dr. Bartolo discovered that Figaro was in fact their son, even though it was a plot as old as the books: which testified to how Sharp handled his role. . And alongside Dr. Bartolo, played by bass Richard Anderson, she conveyed real nastiness. It was a nice touch when Sharp interpolated a single “sì” after Anderson’s opening “Vendetta aria” statement; it confirmed just how in cahoots the two were.
Perhaps the deepest theme of The Marriage of Figaro is forgiveness. In the end, the countess forgives her constantly philanthropic husband and his wandering eye. Commentators note how Mozart’s music elevates what is superficial in Da Ponte’s text. But could there always be a risk that generosity comes too quickly? It was certainly easy to believe that such generosity existed in the Countess of Morozova, and perhaps it depends on the length and latent tension of the pause before the Countess sang “Più docile sono, e dico di sì “. But in the second act, when the Count demanded to know who was hiding in the Countess’ closet, he slapped her. Make no mistake: The Count of Cassi was a fine and deep characterization and, on the positive side, this slap signaled the deadly seriousness with which this production took the drama of Mozart and Da Ponte’s interpersonal relationships: it is only a once the blow is delivered, this slap can make the count irretrievable, at least for a modern audience. What if the Count had thought better? How would that have changed our impression left by the conclusion?
But it’s just a question mark in a production that melodiously and cheerfully reminded us of the timelessness of human behavior and interpersonal politics, as we sat in an opera house where there was no formerly only sandstone woods.