In the booklet accompanying David McVicar’s production of Le nozze di Figaro, recorded at the Royal Opera house in 2006, there’s an essay by the director in which he raises all kinds of questions about the rise of the bourgeoisie, the nature of revolution and romantic conceptions of love. He even appears to draw a parallel between Joseph II and Tony Blair. Then he declines to explain how he has embodied all these ideas on the stage and challenges us to “Watch, listen, participate”. Well I did and I’m none the wiser. What I see her is an essentially traditional approach; transferred cosmetically to 1830s France but so what? It’s darker than some Figaro’s but not nearly as dark as, say, Guth. Curiously, the main “extra” on the disks “Stage directions encoded in the music” tees this up much more clearly than the essay.
So having said all that, I do think it’s a very good production indeed. The scenes are beautifully composed, the Personenregie is compelling and there are tons of interesting details. There are some quite striking moments such as the transition from Act 3 to Act 4 where the mood changes quite abruptly without the action stopping at all. The use of the chorus in a whole range of ways too is clever and there are some originsal touches like a very drunk Cherubino in the finale. It’s also a very “hands on” production. The count has his hands on every female in sight, Figaro and Susanna make out enthusiastically and Barbarina and Cherubino don’t do so badly either.
The performances are all pretty special. Miah Persson is just about the ideal Susanna. She sings stylishly, apparently effortlessly and with great beauty of tone throughout. She’s a terrific actress; very funny in places, most touching in others and she looks terrific. Erwin Schrott’s Figaro is quite proletarian. He’s a big, rough looking chap and while his singing is stylish enough there’s more than a touch of Sprechgesang in the recits. It’s really quite interesting as an interpretation and matches Gerald Finley’s powder keg Count rather well. Finley’s Count is an angry, dangerous, jealous man; smiling only when he’s thought of something cruel to do. But, of course, beautifully sung; just restraining the urge to shout the notes while still conveying the menace. By contrast Dorothea Röschmann’s Countess is just beautifully lyrical and she nails her two big arias. Her intervention in Genti, genti is as beautiful as anyone’s; even Schwarzkopf’s, and is this not perhaps the most beautiful moment in all of opera? Rinat Shaham is an interesting Cherubino. She’s a genuine mezzo and can float a note beautifully but there’s something here that I’m not sure about. Maybe she’s just too good at portraying a really gauche teenager?
There are some fine performances among the supporting cast too. It’s a pleasant luxury to have Philip Langridge as Basilio and quite striking when the fop, as played here, reveals his true colours in In quegli anni in cui val poco. Nice work too from Graciela Araya as Marcellina and Ana James as Barbarina though the fact that she’s about a foot taller than Ms. Shaham does cause some unintended hilarity. Antonio Pappano conducts and it’s a pretty red blooded performance as one might expect from him.
Jonathan Haswell’s video direction is rather good. We get a good view of the sets and the crowd scenes while still being able to catch a lot of the detail (and there are lots of details). The picture and sound (DTS) on DVD are really quite good, even in the darker scenes but Blu-ray is available too. Besides the bonus track referred to earlier the disks contain a synopsis and cast gallery while the booklet has a full track listing. Subtitle options are English, French, German, Spanish and Italian.
It’s not hard to see why this recording was preferred by BBC R3’s “Building a Library”. It’s a first class performance of a carefully constructed but essentially traditional performance. Anyone looking for “big ideas” might be better served by Claus Guth’s Salzburg production which also has very high musical values.