No-one who attended The Grange Festival in 2018 will have forgotten the giant moustache affixed to the front of the mansion’s neoclassical exterior, a supremely entertaining introduction to the company’s new production of Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia. Having ticked off the first of Beaumarchais’ Figaro trilogy, the festival turned this year to the second by way of Mozart’s adaptation, Le nozze di Figaro.

Simona Mihai (Countess Almaviva) and Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro) © Clive Barda
Simona Mihai (Countess Almaviva) and Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro)
© Clive Barda

Martin Lloyd-Evans’ production is strictly traditional and there is little that can cause any great offence to audience sensibilities. Tim Reed’s set is of the sliding wall variety, the proposed quarters of Figaro and Susanna assembled around them in their opening scene, which allows for flexibility and speed during scene changes. The set itself is largely bare – this is not a mansion that is full of the frills and frippery of the nobility of the time – and the lavish backdrops are faded, the furniture old and the doorways chipped. Rather like their marriage, the Almaviva home is neglected and crumbling. Though Lloyd-Evans avoids anything too radical, he has a good eye for character direction with everyone fleshed out and developed. His Almaviva is a nasty piece of work; there’s no Don Giovanni to him, just a violent, peevish boor with priapic tendencies, virtually ravishing ‘Susanna’ on stage in Act 4, so desperately randy is he. Lloyd-Evans seems to make his contrition sincere at the opera’s conclusion, but the manner in which the Countess spurns him makes clear that the damage is done. Though traditional, it feels like a production more dominated by anger and hurt than many that one sees. The lead males shout and throb, the women seem more betrayed and dismayed than usual, and the ‘happy’ ending is subverted: they all combine to give this production a rather more contemporary edge than might at first be thought.

Toby Girling (Count Almaviva), Wallis Giunta (Cherubino) and Ellie Laugharne (Susanna) © Clive Barda
Toby Girling (Count Almaviva), Wallis Giunta (Cherubino) and Ellie Laugharne (Susanna)
© Clive Barda

Figaro needs a strong set of singers across the board to be a complete success and the festival's casting is strong. Toby Girling’s bullying Almaviva snarled and stamped across the stage, and though a tendency to veer towards shouting is not to personal taste, there is no doubt that Girling deployed it effectively. His baritone is a muscular instrument and what was lost in lyricism was gained in forceful delivery. Similarly, Roberto Lorenzi’s Figaro was an imposing figure and at times the opera felt like it might descend into a contest between two alpha males with Susanna as the prize. The aggression of this Figaro was reflected in the punchiness of his delivery, his “Se vuol ballare” virtually spat out through gnashing teeth. This was a valet who, if he could not outwit his master, would quite happily give him a thrashing if it came to it.

Simona Mihai lacked a certain purity in the higher register, but her Countess was movingly played, an elegant vessel of dismay wrapped in silk; a drink tossed down before “Sull'aria...” hinted at where she might find her comfort. Ellie Laugharne stood out as Susanna for clarity of tone and quality of legato; tightly-wound, she showed just the right combination of frustration and amusement. Barely able to conceal her physical repulsion of Almaviva, we were given a woman determined to do her utmost to take control of her fate. Wallis Giunta was clearly revelling in the fun as Cherubino, tweaking the peasant girls, diving under skirts and generally making a nuisance of himself (albeit harmless, at this stage) as a sex pest. Giunta came into her own in Act 2, playing the dressing scene and Cherubino’s exit through the window with twitching enthusiasm. Excellent diction and precise timing led to a memorable performance.

Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro) and Rowan Pierce (Barbarina) © Clive Barda
Roberto Lorenzi (Figaro) and Rowan Pierce (Barbarina)
© Clive Barda

Rowan Pierce was a delightful Barbarina, stealing the too few scenes in which she appeared with a winsome stage presence and sweet voice. Louise Winter’s shrewish Marcellina was an enjoyably sour figure in the first half, draped in black and deploying a smile of vinegar, but made the improbable switch to maternal defender of Susanna with warmth. Jonathan Best was in excellent voice as the morose Dr Bartolo and Ben Johnson gave an odiously pavonine Don Basilio that was splendidly mannered.

The performance was slightly let down by a rather stolid performance from the Academy of Ancient Music under Richard Egarr. A ponderous overture was a warning of a reading that often lacked fleetness and there were several fluffs, most notably in "Sull'aria... che soave zeffiretto". The Grange Festival Chorus made the most of their limited scenes.


****1