Claus Guth’s production of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, first seen at Salzburg in 2006, opened last night at the COC. I was curious to see how it would be received because, while by no means an extreme production by European standards, it’s well beyond the 1970s aesthetic beloved by sections of the Toronto audience. The aesthetic is Northern European; a Strindberg play or a Bergmann film perhaps. It’s monochromatic, quite slow and focusses on the darker side of the characters’ psyches. It’s the antithesis of Figaro as Feydeau farce. There’s also a non-canonical character, Cherubim. He’s a winged doppelganger of Cherubino and seems to be a cross between Cupid and Puck. Pretty much omnipresent he manipulates scenes and characters though with a power that falls well short of absolute. Perhaps the whole production is best summed up in the final ensemble. Cherubim visits each couple in turn and is brusquely rejected. Only Cherubino is still subject to his power and that seems to have become destructive. Perhaps the message is “Now we are married forget this love nonsense and let us get back to our drab lives of quiet despair”.
There are lots of neat touches in the production too. The “mapping” of relationships projected over an extremely elaborate choreography in the Act 2 finale is genius. The symmetrically mirrored Escher like set for the final scene with Susanna’s dress reflected on the underside of the “other” staircase, briefly paired with an upside down Figaro is an intriguing and disturbing image. There is also the symbolism of dead birds; black and occasionally white, and white feathers, which, despite having seen this production a few times I haven’t fully fathomed. Also, lest it sound all too heavy and Germanic, for all its symbolism and layers this production is actually very funny and there was no shortage of laughter in the house last night.
There were some stellar performances too. Best perhaps was the Cherubino of Emily Fons. She didn’t just sing beautifully she fully inhabited the character who is more important here than in most productions. She’s a brilliant mover too. She manages to look appropriately masculine and brilliantly pulls off the teenage boy awkwardly impersonating a girl bit. Russell Braun was a terrific Count. One of his best roles I think. This count is always on the verge of losing it and Russell conveyed that instability. Also he gets to sing Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro with Cherubim on his shoulders. No mean feat!
Josef Wagner’s Figaro is relatively straightforward but excellently sung. This production somehow makes Figaro rather less the central character than most but Wagner made the most of it. By contrast, Susanna’s role is perhaps amplified and Jane Archibald, while managing the musical side very well indeed, also manages to convey the ambiguity of this Susanna’s relationship with the Count. Erin Wall, as the Countess, may be more suited to Strauss than Mozart at this point and she took a while to really get going. Porgi Amor sounded a bit laboured but she was in fine voice by Dove sono. Both ladies are quite well matched physically too, which makes all the clothes swapping a bit more credible. Thay are both also rather good lookers and the scene with the two of them and Cherubino is beyond my powers of description.
There were some pleasing cameos from old friends in the supporting cast. Sasha Djihanian. making the most of being much smaller than the other ladies (as she did in Don Giovanni) was a wonderfully flustered, over-sexed Barbarina. Doug MacNaughton made Antonio into an actual character rather than just a plot device. Robert Pomakov was a wonderfully decrepit Bartolo opposite Helene Schneiderman’s not too cartoonish Marcellina. She has a genuine low alto voice and it’s a pity her aria got cut though, heaven knows, it’s a long night as things stand. There were pleasing cameos too from Michael Colvin and Jean-Philippe Fortier-Lazure. Then there was Uli Kirsch, the Cherubim. I think he’s the only person who has featured in every performance of this production since the premiere and it’s hard to see how he could be replaced. Fine acting, timing, athleticism and the ability to ride a unicycle aren’t often combined. Nice!
This is a tough production to conduct and also places demands on the pianist (piano not harpsichord for the recits here). One doesn’t want to lose the joie de vivre of Mozart’s music but, equally, there is a need for a certain gravitas for this Konzept. In particular the recits can’t be rushed but must be given full weight. I thought both Johannes Debus and Jordan de Souza (standing in for an injured Michael Shannon) did a pretty decent balancing job here though I don’t think it was always quite up to the extraordinary standard that we have got used to in conducting and orchestra. Nikolaus Harnoncourt is a hard act to follow.
It was all well received too. There was laughter and applause in the right places and some enthusiasm at the end. I didn’t hear a single boo when Claus Guth appeared which was good. Not a terribly full house though(1). Maybe Thursday is just a tough sell for a long show.
Before the show Alexander Neef appeared to make a brief speech. Not the “let’s hear it for our sponsors and me” fluff we get in other houses but a dedication of the performance to Canadian values in the face of international terrorism best exemplified by the news that the COC will offer free access to dress rehearsals at the Four Seasons Centre to our newly arrived Syrian refugees. Bravo! Full text of Alexander Neef’s speech.
There are nine more performances by this cast between now and the end of the month plus the Ensemble Studio production on the 22nd. It’s definitely worth seeing and I’m sure I’ll see more on a repeat viewing. It’s that kind of show.
Photo credits: Michael Cooper. These aren’t necessarily the scenes I would have chosen to showcase but shots from the Dress were restricted because Russell Braun was indisposed that night. Hopefully there will be more by the time I take a second look at the show on the 19th.
[fn1] Apparently it was 91% sold which is pretty decent, about average in fact. No shows or did I just have an odd vantage point?