Much to Fascinate and Celebrate in the Royal Opera’s Figaro at Covent Garden

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United Kingdom Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of the Royal Opera House / Sir John Eliot Gardiner (conductor). Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, 29.6.2019. (CC)

Production:
Director – David McVicar
Revival director – Thomas Guthrie
Designer – Tanya McCallin
Lighting designer – Paule Constable
Movement director – Leah Hausman
Revival Movement director – Angelo Smimmo

Cast:
Figaro – Christian Gerhaher
Susanna – Joélle Harvey
Count Almaviva – Sir Simon Keenlyside
Countess Almaviva – Julia Kleiter
Don Basilio – Jean-Paul Fouchécourt
Bartolo – Maurizio Muraro
Marcellina – Diana Montague
Cherubino – Kangmin Justin Kim
Barbarina – Yaritza Véliz
Don Curzio – Alasdair Elliott

David McVicar’s Le nozze di Figaro production is not quite the carpet slippers of Covent Garden’s La traviata, but it has a nicely familiar feel to it by now. It was first seen in 2006, and I reviewed it in 2014 and 2015. Here we are in 2019, its sixth revival, but there is an important difference. We have a male Cherubino – a trouser role usually, taken by either a soprano or a mezzo. Here it was Korean-American countertenor Kangmin Justin Kim who took the role, and did so brilliantly. Having a male there allows the option of going topless without courting sensationalism (and, indeed, he obliged), but the fact is that we have to look at the musical result. Kim was absolutely convincing, strong of voice, and a great actor who had the ability to make us, the audience, really feel for him. His ‘Susanetta, sei tu? … Non so più‘ was fresh, a glassy edge to his voice most appealing (although he could be a touch reedy up top, perhaps). The pace for ‘Non so più’ was positively breathless, but it worked brilliantly. Not all of Gardiner’s speeds and risks paid off, however – throughout the evening there were corners of ensemble that just missed, a shame as Figaro demands razor-sharp precision. There was a particular disagreement between Figaro and his conductor in ‘Aprite un po’quegli occhi’ in the final act. On the plus side, Gardiner emphasised the rawness available, particularly from the horns; his Overture was astonishingly rapid, but fizzed with anticipation as, onstage, we saw the servants busying themselves around the house. The Royal Opera’s Chorus responded with aplomb to Gardiner for their contributions. One assumes Gardiner positively encouraged the odd vocal decoration, too.

The action is moved to 1830, a year rife with Europe-wide revolutions. Clearly a time for upending received wisdom about the status quo, therefore. The upstairs/downstairs divide in the microcosm of the Le nozze setting is clear, with Figaro’s quarters rather squalid in comparison with the sheer space and light available to those ‘upstairs’. Clever lighting emphasises both aspects. There is magic, particularly in Act IV’s castle gardens, but this frame requires a cast that works as an ensemble and with no weak links. And here is a cast with highs and lows. Christian Gerhaher, who has provided some memorable evenings away from the opera house (Wigmore Hall for Schumann and the Barbican for Schumann’s Faust, for example), simply did not sound at home on the opera stage. Even from the stalls he was too quiet in the opening stages, with only occasional hints as to what he could do, as if saving his voice for some later point; in addition, the part’s range seemed simply too low for him. ‘Se vuol ballare’ was under-powered, as it was, also, from the pit. His Susanna, Joëlle Harvey, was superb throughout, though, here making her Royal Opera main stage debut. My colleague in Spain, José M. Irurzun, was impressed by Harvey’s Almirena in Rinaldo, and I find myself in complete accord about her talent. Harvey’s ‘Venite inginocchiatevi’ (in Act II) was sprightly, with every word clear; but it was in the third act when she was onstage with Simon Keenleyside that we heard her at her absolute finest. And of our Count, to the same extent that Gerhaher was off-form, Keenlyside was on form. Magisterial in both acting and in vocal terms – beauty of sound, diction, characterisation – this was Keenlyside, always a fine singer, at the very top of his game.

The role of Barbarina is often left to the very end of a review with a mere token gesture reference to the final act ‘Pin’ aria. Jette Parker singer, the Chilean soprano Yaritza Véliz changes all that with a stunning account of that aria, but adding also a feeling of real stage presence whenever she was onstage; deliciously cheeky sums it up the role here nicely, through which one could perceive huge talent. Next season her roles include Papagena in Die Zauberflöte – a debut to watch closely, on present evidence.

The Countess Almaviva was Julia Kleiter, another Royal Opera debut, perhaps not quite as significantly taken. A particular highlight, though, was the duettino from the third Act, ‘Sull’aria … che soave zeffiretto’ between the Countess and Susanna.

It was lovely to see Diana Montague as Marcellina, a role she positively owned, while Jean-Paul Fouchécourt made for a deliciously effete Don Basilio; in fine voice, too. Maurizio Muraro was a strong Bartolo. Both Jeremy White, familiar in the role of the gardener Antonio, and Alasdair Elliott, as a strong Don Curzio, offered much to enjoy.

There was much to fascinate, therefore, and much to celebrate (Barbarina and Cherubino particularly), despite some frustrating contradictions in casting and conducting. And one final compliment to a driving force in opera rarely noted: the delicious, ever-fresh fortepiano continuo contributions of James Hendry.

Colin Clarke