This staging of Mozart's perennial favourite Le nozze di Figaro was notable for two reasons. First, it brought a new production of the piece to Welsh National Opera, by the Catalan director Lluis Pasqual, and second, it marked the role debut of Welsh diva Rebecca Evans as Countess Almaviva.
In the event, the latter was wholly satisfying while the former was only partly so.
Nothing about Pasqual's staging is particularly offensive, but at the same time it has nothing new to say. The action is updated to the 1930s, for no apparent reason, and much of the poignancy of the libretto is lost. Then, too, the updating makes nonsense of the plot's central argument – namely, whether the Count is going to stay true to his promise to overturn the tradition of the droit de seigneur and allow the marriage of Figaro and Susanna to proceed without interference – which is why the Enlightenment setting of the original libretto is so important in this work. Pasqual is hardly the first to stumble in this respect, either: ENO's most recent production also updated the piece to a similar period and memorably flopped.
Paco Azorin's designs are conventional enough for the first three acts, and fairly attractive in terms of the clean lines of the sets and some beautiful props such as the pianoforte and the furniture in the Countess' room. On the other hand, the scenery wasn't really satisfactory when it came to the scenes where Cherubino and the Count hide from Don Basilio (Act 1) and Susanna hides from the Count (Act 2); a lot more humour can be derived from these moments. The final act, meanwhile, was bizarre: the action should take place in a garden, but Azorin has a series of sliding mirrored panels that allow the characters to enter, leave and conceal themselves at will, but do not give clarity to the action or atmosphere to the drama. The use of spotlights to highlight singers during solo arias is also rather distracting and takes away from the seamlessness of the piece. These are perhaps small qualms, but they are a sign that neither director nor designer has a particular grasp of the work. Nor do Franca Squarciapino's costumes do several of the singers any favours in terms of elegance and style.
Vocally there was much to enjoy, however. After a slow first act, the advent of Rebecca Evans for a full-toned, elegiac 'Porgi amor' immediately increased the intensity of the performance. The role is ideal for the Welsh soprano, who has previously excelled as Susanna all over the world. Emotionally, she seems to connect very deeply with the portrayal of the neglected wife, yet she has enough fire inside her to conquer the Count's nasty ways. What makes her perfectly matched for the part, though, is Evans' voice, which has continued to bloom and was easily in another league to most of the rest of the cast here. The exposed legato lines in the Act 2 finale were elegantly tailored, while 'Dove sono' was despatched with apparent ease (and decorated in the same manner as in her concert with Mackerras and the OAE last November) and the duet with Susanna, 'Che soave zeffiretto', was done with an exquisitely creamy tone.
This Llandudno performance marked the first appearance of Elizabeth Watts in the role of Susanna during this run, taking over from Rosemary Joshua who originated it in Cardiff. Unsurprisingly, Watts does not sing with the same voltage or sheen as Joshua, who has been specialising in the role for years, but the pleasures of Watts' portrayal are countless. She looks the part, and her bubbly, cheeky, flirty personality is ideally suited to Susanna's temperament. Though it's true that she sang tentatively during Act 1, she came alive in the second act, and her rendition of 'Deh vieni, non tardar', tastefully decorated in the final stanza, was magical.
Former Young Artist of the Royal Opera Jacques Imbrailo projected strongly into the unforgiving acoustics of Venue Cymru and his lively portrayal of the Count was engaging, but for me he was on the young side for the role, and he did not quite nail the taxing third-act aria as well as he did some of the other passages in the opera. As Figaro, David Soar took a long time to warm up, and for me the chemistry with Watts' Susanna was lacking. He did, however, find some contrast and nuance in his final-act aria, notwithstanding the fact that the production required him to play with a shiny silver ball dangling on a string from the ceiling at this point.
Cora Burggraaf's Cherubino was largely a triumph, not least because she plays the boyishness of the character so well, and of the comprimario singers, Sarah Pring's incisive Marcellina and Jeffrey Lloyd-Roberts' comical Don Basilio stood out; by contrast, for me, Henry Waddington's rendition of Bartolo's aria was very disappointing.
Michael Hofstetter's conducting left me in two minds. On the one hand, the co-ordination between stage and pit was absolutely dire at times, mainly because Hofstetter's speeds were too slow for the singers but occasionally also because he did not accommodate their need to breathe or expand during cadences. On the other, the Orchestra of WNO played absolutely beautifully for the most part, indeed I don't think I've ever heard them play more so. From the very start, articulation was immaculately observed, and the balance of the instruments within the orchestra – for instance, Mozart's keen trick of having the high woodwinds sitting on top of the strings – was excellent, so it's a shame that the problems with the beat were so intense.
Overall, though, entertainment values were high, and in spite of the production's many shortcomings, the Evans-Watts combination is to be highly recommended.
Photo Credits: Bill Cooper