Every new production of Figaro at Glyndebourne – and this is the ninth new production since 1934 – is a special event. Whether or not the spirit of la folle journée by Beaumarchais somehow infuses the Sussex Downs in midsummer, or the spirit of that first cast (Audrey Mildmay as Susanna, Aulikki Rautawaara as the Countess, Willi Domgraf-Fassbaender as Figaro and Roy Henderson as the Count) in a Carl Ebert production under the baton of Fritz Busch, somehow transmits itself by osmosis to successive generations, the Figaro experience at Glyndebourne is almost always to be savoured. The present house reopened with a new Figaro in 1994 and the hot ticket for the 2012 festival season was once again Mozart’s 1786 masterpiece: with the director Michael Grandage, the designer Christopher Oram and the conductor, Glyndebourne’s music director-designate, Robin Ticciati at the helm of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment (OAE), it promised great things. So all in all, a big first night – perhaps the big night of the 2012 season so far – and a lot riding on several pairs of young shoulders.
So how did they fare? The first thing to report is that this is a show with many very lovely constituent elements – some fine singing, some brilliantly idiomatic playing by the OAE, many glorious stage pictures and a gradual coming together of all that is wonderful in Mozart and da Ponte’s conception of love, lust, social upheaval and, most extraordinary of all, true forgiveness. But – and I have a number of buts – the operative word is gradual. For this Figaro took an inordinately long time to generate any sparks, to move along at the pace that the music demands. It is, after all, a comedy, an opera buffa, and the situations created and depicted onstage cry out for deft touches of wit, for quicksilver moments and for sustained attack. Instead of which, Grandage moved his principals deliberately and often approximately, allowing the dramatic momentum to sag and leaving the music to do all of the work. Was there enough rehearsal? For there were even times when I wondered what it was he was trying to achieve – all the more surprising because his directorial debut at Glyndebourne, with Billy Budd two years ago,was a masterpiece of sustained music theatre, with movement and dramatic tension wound tight as a spring. Yet it is impossible to apply any such description to onstage proceedings in this Figaro.
The stage setting for the productionis monumental – the street façade of a grand house in or near Seville (against which the overture is staged, with bustling servants, doors and windows being opened and the eventual arrival of the Count and Countess in a handsome two-seater sports car), revolving clockwise on the turntable to reveal, successively, the room allocated to Figaro and Susanna (Act One) and the Countess’s bedroom (Act Two). The décor is Moorish, with golds, dark greens and burnished reds predominating in what looks suspiciously like thousands of Casa Pupo wall tiles; the costumes range from timeless traditional peasant dresses to the 1960s and 1970s (the men in jackets and flannels, Barbarina in a miniskirt, Susanna in a smart black two piece suit). The overall effect is undeniably handsome, especially when lit with Paule Constable’s usual subtle skill, but the real design magic does not come into play until Act Four, when the scurrying and hiding in the garden by all involved is played out against a classic stage picture – a superbly intricate garden façade to the house, the counterpoint to the stage picture for the overture. And by this time in the proceedings nerves have settled, there is some momentum, the act (often a let-down in productions that have peaked early on) is a delight, and brought roars of warm approval from the forgiving first night audience. No one incidentally was more warmly applauded than Ticciati and the OAE: his tempi were often on the brisk side but he drew wonderfully accomplished playing from the orchestra and a terrific sense of ensemble onstage. The rapport between stage and pit and the dynamic balance between voices and orchestra was for the most art exemplary (and this applied too to a fresh-sounding, very well drilled Glyndebourne Chorus).
Who impressed and who fell slightly short? In pride of place, for some beautifully articulated singing and an unfailing sense of Mozartian style, I would focus on the Susanna of Lydia Teuscher. Whenever she was onstage, things started to happen. Her sound is clean and clear but there is an attractive bloom to the voice that makes her melodic lines interesting and allows her to characterise and point up what she is doing. In the opening duet with Figaro (he measuring, she trying on her hat), she quite rightly wriggled out from under him and ended up on top – the music after all is telling us that Susanna will prevail!
But she had dark horse competition from the Cherubino of Isabel Leonard, whose mezzo is rich, idiosyncratic and hugely promising. I suspect that Leonard will develop considerably during the run. As it is, she had all the legato qualities needed for the sensuous side of Cherubino but a very good sense of timing and vocal attack. Incidentally – and this applied to all the singers – with the OAE sound beneath them, the possibilities for coloration and embellishment in second verses are endless, but they largely went begging. Why, I wonder?
Sally Matthews as the Countess looked delightful (1960s hippie-like in a headband and flowing kaftan that allowed her to move with silken grace) and she sang her two great arias with conviction, purity of tone and a real sense of melodic line. The pianissimo second verse of Dove sono was particularly successful and undoubtedly effective. For me the biggest drawback to her portrayal was lack of clarity in the words: with slightly less vibrato, she might well have been able to project the libretto much better. But she was appealing, and touching at all the right times, and her sudden emergence for the Count’s Contessa, perdono in the final act was, as it should be, a great theatrical moment.
I had more problems with the male principals. As Count Almaviva, Audun Iversen seemed to me to be all over the place dramatically and not nearly assertive and impressive enough vocally. His costumes suggested at times a lounge lizard, at others an ineffective prep school master having trouble keeping an unruly class in order. The baritone sound is fine if unmemorable, and he sang the role decently enough: but the menace, the aristocratic hauteur that the character should have, were totally lacking. Grandage may have taken a directorial decision to place all social classes in his production on the same footing (so Figaro can put his arm round the Count like a mate in the pub), but if so, he must then do something more interesting with Se vuol ballare and, even more crucially, with the Count’s great Act Three outburst Vedro mentr’io sospiro. Here Iversen was made to stroll casually round the stage, sitting down at random (at just the moment he should have been at his most imperious) and sounding like nothing more than a whinger.
The Figaro of Vito Priante was likeable, as he should be, but lightweight. The resourcefulness and invention, coupled with vocal panache, that he ought to have shown in the great finale to Act Two – perhaps the greatest act finale ever written – were simply not in evidence. As with Iversen, the vocal sound was accurate and pleasing, but not characterised with nearly enough projection and force. I wondered at times if they were deliberately singing down, chamber music style, to each other: but the concept makes no sense. In both these hugely demanding roles, much more is required.
More entertaining singing came from the comprimario roles, a splendidly eccentric triumvirate of Ann Murray as Marcellina, Andrew Shore as Bartolo and Alan Oke (in particularly mellifluous vein) as Don Basilio. Murray was in fine voice and acted as a splendid foil to Susanna: it is a pity that we did not have her Act Four aria. Shore projected Bartolo’s character splendidly, with a great sense of comic timing: if La vendetta was a shade lightweight musically, he made up for it in other ways. And Murray and Shore came together of course with the main principals for Riconosci in Act Three, the great sextet of recognition and denouement. It was splendidly sung but here again I wondered about some of the director’s decisions: the music has such linear logic, such compelling drive as we move along the line of Sua madre and Sua padre that the characters have to interact properly: there are genuine laugh out loud moments throughout this virtuoso vocal and orchestral writing, but in this Figaro it was just mildly amusing, no more, with the characters simply not placed onstage to maximum possible effect.
Sarah Shafer sang Barbarina’s Act Four curtain aria prettily; I wonder whether we shall ever hear her sing Susanna at Glyndebourne. Colin Judson was a sound and dependable Don Curzio. And in the night air of that stage garden near Seville and that superb auditorium near Lewes, by the end some little touches of magic began to show themselves. So my huge hope is that as the cast get run in, as the wit and wisdom of Mozart and da Ponte’s ingenious construction become ever more apparent to them, the whole pace will quicken and the theatrical side of this peerless piece of music theatre will begin to match the musical side that Ticciati clearly already has under control.
I have now seen four of the nine Glyndebourne Figaros, starting in the old theatre with the 1973 production by Peter Hall (which ran and ran and ran). Then came Stephen Medcalf in 1994 (and his Figaro of that year, Gerald Finley, was in the house last night – I wonder what he made of it) followed by Graham Vick, whose minimalist and see-through take on the piece divided opinion hugely, but actually got better the more times it was revived. Of the four, the Peter Hall was in a class of its own: a stupendous piece of music theatre that was all the more inspiring because of the director’s meticulous attention to minute stage detail and to that concept we nowadays call Personenregie. Grandage’s Figaro needs more attention: if it gets it, and the characters start to match some lovely singing with some real comic-dramatic acting, it could yet become a very good show indeed. But it is not there yet.
Photos: Alastair Muir