It’s difficult to imagine a venue less like Glyndebourne’s warm, intimate opera house than the Royal Albert Hall. No singer-friendly wooden panelling here – just cavernous spaces and those aerial mushrooms. As we’ve seen time and time again, what suits a deluxe modern theatre doesn’t always transfer well elsewhere, even without the RAH’s particular acoustic challenges.
This Proms presentation of Glyndebourne’s latest Figaro was, then, an exercise in musical and dramatic cunning. The production (directed at Glyndebourne by Michael Grandage, with designs by Christopher Oram) was semi-staged here by Ian Rutherford, who provided a streamlined version of Grandage’s 1960s update: floatiness for the ladies; bad hair for the gents; swinging optional but encouraged. There were props, too – high-backed wicker chairs, oversized houseplants, a clothing rail hung with kaftans to hide Cherubino – and even gestures towards a set, with several empty door frames (each accessorised with a human door-knocker to provide those all-important sound effects). To keep things as theatrical as possible, all stage business took place behind the orchestra, thus avoiding the foreground line-up usually adopted at Proms opera performances.
The fact that Rutherford’s semi-staging took itself so seriously certainly had pay-offs, in particular enlivening what might otherwise have become interminable recitatives and exploiting the ultra-dynamic stage presence of its cast. But it also exaggerated the RAH’s vast distances: the sight-lines were as clear as could be, but the singers sounded oddly removed from proceedings, occasionally struggling to be heard over the orchestra. This problem especially afflicted the men: all too often, their lower registers sank murkily beneath Mozart’s scoring.
These male characters – already battling extravagant facial hair, crushed velvet and trousers of an unforgiving cut – had much to contend with. Add some silly slapstick touches to the underwhelming vocal decibels and suddenly half the cast risked appearing uniformly cartoonish. Figaro is an opera buffa and humour is an important part of its success. But the title character needs to remain smart, and although Almaviva was allowed his 15 seconds of penitence at the very end, this (heavily emphasised) poignancy was soon forgotten in a final, en masse disco-death dance routine.
There was, though, much more to enjoy besides cringe-inducing grooviness. Lydia Teuscher’s Susanna skilfully navigated the production and venue, her creamy soprano both luxurious and delicately phrased. As the Countess, Sally Matthews was wonderfully poised (despite ankle-endangering platform shoes) and supplied in beauty of tone what she sometimes lacked in diction. Isabel Leonard was a Cherubino fully in touch with his feminine side, her ‘Voi che sapete’ rich and warm even while it provided the obligatory helping of bashfulness.
Among the sartorially stricken men, Vito Priante’s Figaro was dramatically persuasive but lacked a solid tonal core, above and beyond the acoustic problems. As Almaviva, Audun Iversen survived a floor-cushion duet with Susanna and was as affecting as circumstances allowed. Ann Murray (Marcellina) and Andrew Shore (Bartolo) were nicely matched as Figaro’s sitcom-ready embarrassing parents, Sarah Shafer made an adorable Barbarina and Alan Oke detonated on-the-money patter as Don Basilio.
Best of all, though, was the OAE under Glyndebourne’s incoming Music Director, Robin Ticciati. His reading was always pacey but offered a huge dynamic range. Most impressive, though, was the crispness of articulation, minutely regulated ensemble and sensitivity to the challenges of this ever-demanding space. The future for Glyndebourne – whether playing at home or away – looks bright indeed.
Photo: Glyndebourne's Figaro at the Proms (Chris Christodoulou)