Archive for February 8, 2009

The Marriage of Figaro

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 8, 2009 by telescoper

After a week of miserable inclement weather it was a relief to have beautifully crisp sunny Saturday yesterday, capped by the prospect of a Night at the Opera. The “Spring” season of Welsh National Opera is now underway so I went to the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay to see their production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (italian name: Le Nozze di Figaro).

I’ve been going to the opera for quite a while now, and I’m definitely mildly addicted to it. It’s quite an expensive thing to get hooked on, but not compared to some things. For me, there’s a kind of excitement about opera that is almost childish. As we settled down into our seats last night, I had butterflies in my stomach and when the overture started, the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

Here’s the overture played at a good lick by the English Baroque Soloists.

With that as your starter, who wouldn’t be looking forward to the rest of the meal?

The Marriage of Figaro, a classic Opera Buffa , was the first of three to derive from a collaboration between Mozart and Lorenzo da Ponte that also produced Cosi fan Tutte and Don Giovanni. According to the programme notes, da Ponte wrote the libretto for Le Nozze di Figaro in less than six weeks, which is truly remarkable considering what a wonderfully polished work it is.

And of course there’s the music. Starting from the bustling ebullience of the briliant overture, the score is just beautiful from start to finish, the slapstick comedy punctuated by truly moving expressions of love and heartache such as the arias Porgi amor and Dove sono i bei momenti that make this piece much more than just a bit of fun. It also boasts one of the most beautiful duets in all opera, Sull’aria….Che soave zeffiretto, also known as the Letter Duet. Anyone will who has seen the memorable film Shawshank Redemption will recognize it because that’s what’s on the record Andy plays over the prison public address system after breaking into the warders’ office.

The lovely tunes wash over you one after the other in a way that’s so typical of Mozart; only Puccini had anything like his gift for wonderful melodies. With such sublime music and such a clever text, it’s very difficult to go very wrong. The one thing you have to make sure of in an Opera Buffa is to keep the pace going, much like a classic stage farce: if you dwell on it too much it’s no longer funny, just embarrassing to watch. The hectic pace only abates when the characters sing their wonderful solo arias, the surrounding comic context heightening their dramatic impact, but when these pieces are over we’re off again into the mayhem. The whole thing scurries along with never a dull moment and, by the end, you can hardly believe that it’s been the best part of four hours. The running time for last night’s performance, including one interval, was about 3 hours and 45 minutes but I never once looked at my watch.

This production is slick, beautifully sung, and keeps the momentum going in exactly the right way. The costumes are dated somewhere in the early 20th Century, with Susanna‘s French maid costume reminding me a little bit of the dress Kylie Minogue wore in Doctor Who. The sets are quite spare (although with sufficient props to hide behind, and there’s a lot of hiding behind things in this opera), with large mirrors at the side giving an extra sense of space. I was wondering how they would manage the garden setting for Act IV with this relatively simple set, but this was all done with mirrors too, this time with images of trees superimposed on them. It was quite effective, at least at first, although the mirrors kept moving around in a distracting and sometimes alarming way which spoilt it a little.

The cast was very good, especially Rosemary Joshua’s pert Susanna and Rebecca Evans as the Contessa Almaviva (both of them born in South Wales). The unflappably resourceful and charismatic Figaro was sung by David Soar, who played the part quite “straight” and let the libretto do the work. A good call, in my opinion. The Count Almaviva, Jacques Imbrailo, also sang very well and had considerable presence, but he wasn’t nearly pompous enough for my taste. Part of the joy of this opera is the subversion of roles, Figaro being so much smarter than his boss. I don’t think they quite made the most of this.

I should make a special mention of the stunningly beautiful Fiona Murphy as Cherubino. This character is a sex-starved adolescent boy, sung by a girl soprano, with definite shades of the principal boy in English pantomime. In fact, the English translation of the libretto seen in the surtitles cleverly uses the word pantomime in his/her scenes. In her Cherubino persona in the first Act, wearing a sports jacket and plus-twos, and with her hair cut short, Fiona Murphy had more than a touch of KD Lang about her. Later on Cherubino has to dress as a girl, and I found the result very interesting in all kinds of unexpected ways, not all of them comic…

Oh and I should mention that it is sung in Italian too. Call me old-fashioned but I always prefer things in the original language, especially when it’s Italian.

All in all, an excellent night out, and judging by the prolonged cheering and applause at the end, I don’t think I’m the only one who thought it so!