Happy ever after?

I’ve watched the Blu-ray version of the 2006 Salzburg production of Le Nozze di Figaro a few times now but sitting through it with notepad at the ready made me realise how much I hadn’t seen on the previous viewings.  My notes are copious.  I usually take a couple of pages or so.  This time I covered four pages and it could easily have been more.  You have been warned.

1.stairs This is a really interesting production.  It’s genesis lies in the fertile brain of Nikolaus Harnoncourt who sees the piece as being a drama about relationships and only in the most cerebral way a comedy.  To back this Konzept up he has decided views on tempi and on the style of recitatives of which more later.  His ideas were taken up by director Claus Guth who decided that the emotional world he wanted was something like the plays of Strindberg or Ibsen or the films of Bergman; a world where people are trying desperately to escape from their emotions and their implications.  It’s a bleak world in which happiness is elusive and fleeting and as far from the commedia del’arte as one can get.  The excellent “Making of” documentary included on the disk shows how much work went into turning the basic idea into workable music theater.

2.cherubimThe realisation of the concept is based around a number of key ideas.  The first is the introduction of a silent character; Cherubim, who is part Cherubino’s alter ego and part a force or deity driving the action at key points.  He appears to physically manipulate the actors as well as to comment silently on the action.  The intervention is especially dramatic during the Count’s aria Vedrò mentr’io sospiro where Cherubim rides the Count before dragging him, prone across the stage.  Feathers from Cherubim’s wings physical or projected, also play a role at times.  Next there’s a lot of ambiguity about love, desire and their objects.  Susanna clearly desires the Count as well as Figaro but in a monogamous world must certainly for one.  The Countess clearly has the hots for Cherubino who is off limits.  Cherubino (in which of his personae?) is the one character for whom multiple love interest seems sanctioned (though we must suspect that marriage to Barbarina will signify his incorporation into the world of repressed emotions of the adults).  Thus, the women’s agency here transcends the traditional one of them defending the honour of women in general and their own in particular and extends to exploring their own sexual roles and preferences. The ending, rather than the traditional “all tension resolved” denouement leaves us wondering about the future happiness of all involved given the choices they have been forced to make.

3.pageThese ideas are played out on a simple set of an entrance hall with a wide staircase and multiple doors  This allows characters to come and go at various levels and offers multiple “hiding places”.  Except they aren’t.  Very little is hidden.  Most of the things that some or other character is supposed not to have seen are played out more or less in their full view.  It’s as if everyone is complicit in all the plots all the time.  Only briefly, at the beginning of Act 4, do we get away from this openness as, temporarily, the plot thickens and a screen with three large doors descends in front of the staircase.  In the ensembles, the relationship complexities are brought out in the careful choreography of Ramses Sigl.  In the septet at the end of Act 2 they are even graphed in video projection above the singers. There are also a myriad of small touches that it would be tedious to list and I’m not sure I understand them all anyway.

4.underwearTo make this all work clearly required enormously detailed work on the parts of the singers, director and conductor.  There’s not an unconsidered movement, gesture or phrase in the whole piece.  The hard work paid off because there are some really strong performances across the board.  Anna Netrebko’s Susanna is completely right for the piece.  This is one performance where Susanna cannot be described as “pert”.  It’s a moving portrayal of a young woman with very ambiguous feelings and it’s beautifully sung; respecting both Harnoncourt’s sometimes unusual tempi and Guth’s physical demands.  The Countess of Dorothea Röschmann is equally fine.  She’s never content, as so many in this role are, merely to sound beautiful.  Her interaction with Cherubino in Act 2 is borderline pornographic and she delivers the most emotionally intense Dove sono that I have ever heard.  Christine Schäfer is brilliant as Cherubino.  In this production he’s rather an unkempt, gangly adolescent and nobody does grubby and unkempt like Schäfer.  The men are just as good.  Bo Skovhus is a neurotic and troubled Count but he sings with great refinement despite the physical demands placed on him.  His refinement contrasts brilliantly with Ildebrando d’Arcangelo’s darker voice.  His tone isn’t very beautiful but it’s exactly right for this interpretation and this ensemble.  There’s some pretty spectacular physical acting from him too.  The rest of the ensemble is excellent.  there’s some pretty luxurious casting for minor parts with the result that it’s easy to include arias by Marcellina and Basilio that usually get cut.

5.birdHarnoncourt’s musical direction is fascinating.  Some of his tempi are unusual and not all are slower than usual.  Deh vieni, non tardar for example is rather faster than usual.  He is though consistently slow in the recitatives.  He gives full value to the text and sometimes pauses for effect.  It’s a polar opposite to the breathless “let’s get on to the next aria” adopted in many productions.  He also gets a very specific sound from the orchestra.  There’s a lot of “attack”, especially from the strings and it sounds almost like a period instrument performance which is not what I expect from the Wiener Philharmoniker!  It’s very effective and, again, works with the whole concept.

7.sextetAll in all, I can see why this production was so enthusiastically received in the theatre if not entirely appreciated by the more conservative critics.  However I didn’t see it in Salzburg but in the version that Brian Large committed to disk.  It’s one of his better efforts but it’s still infuriating in places.  I can take the close ups and weird angles.  To some extent the staircase layout encourages that.  Where i part company is in the treatment f the ensembles.  These are staged to serve a very specific dramatic purpose and mucking around with irrelevant close ups and silly angles undermines that purpose.  It’s particularly egregious during Voi signor, che giusto siete and Riconosci in questo amplesso.  Also for some reason he insists on filming Via, resti servita as if it’s a tennis match rather than a duet.  Fie upon him!

6.countsusannaTechnically this is a superb disk.  The picture is gorgeous 16:9 1080i.  There are three sound options; PCM 2.0 PCM 5.1 and DTS-HD 5.1.  I sampled both surround tracks as it’s a rare opportunity to do a direct comparison.  The PCM track was a clear winner.  It’s extremely natural and brings out Harnoncourt’s punchy sound choices more vividly than the DTS.  There are English, Italian, German, French, Spanish and Chinese subtitles.  The trilingual booklet has track listings, a synopsis and a short essay but much better to watch the “Making of” documentary which covers the same ground in more detail.

8.finaleThis is a very individual Figaro and maybe not anybody’s idea of a “reference edition” but it is fascinating and the disk package, reservations about Mr. Large notwithstanding, is excellent.  Definitely worth a look.

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9 thoughts on “Happy ever after?

  1. I really liked this one too. It took me a while to warm up to it, but at this point it’s the version of this opera that I’ve watched/listened to the most. It made me rethink many of the things I’d assumed about the way the opera works both musically and dramatically.

    Re: the camera angles, the one that bothered me was the camera perched at the top of the stairs looking downward – a view that no one in the audience would ever have. It was jarring.

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