After the great debate on the erotic and the spiritual in Tannhäuser at Longborough Festival Opera comes a more light-hearted, though barbed, consideration from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. Daring for the time in its digs at the sexual misconduct of the aristocratic class, Count Almaviva is just as randy at Tannhäuser, but without the quality of spirituality (and fine musical talent) to redeem him. As his valet Figaro prepares to marry Susanna, handmaiden to his wife, Almaviva schemes to exercise his feudal right to lie with her before marriage, while expressing outrage at the rampant lust of the young page, Cherubino.
Thomas Guthrie’s production is set just before Britain declared war on Germany in 1914. Almaviva is in grouse-shooting attire, then in morning coat, while Cherubino, having taken a commission, is in that all-too familiar uniform of the British Army. As a concept, it wasn’t bad, tying in nicely with the social tensions of the time. Rhiannon Newman Brown’s set was a pared-down country estate – door frames represented rooms, a few large cardboard leaves symbolised a forest and a window frame was conveniently lowered down for autodefenestration purposes. Presumably on a tight budget, it managed to do quite a lot with very little and my only complaint was the ludicrous way characters would pretend to open, close and lock doors, where some form of door would surely not have interfered too radically with Guthrie’s production.
Singing Figaro, Grant Doyle’s baritone was rock-solid, with gravelly tones and a big dark voice that was strongly articulated. Doyle’'s acting was slightly understated at various points, in "Se vuol ballare" for example, where he demonstrated an exciting lower register, but essentially declaimed the aria blankly, and a little more synthesis between text and performance would have lent his performance more of an edge. With a light, chirpy voice, Beate Mordal's feisty Susanna gave a thrilling performance. Vocally she lacks heft, but in this venue, Mordal was perfectly audible, reaching high notes well and showing an innate musicality and precision that ensured all of her resources were harnessed and deployed for maximum effect.
Cherubino, sung by Anna Harvey, was excellently performed. Harvey has a naturally youthful mezzo, and the higher register is in perfect condition, gleaming at the very top. Everything she sang was packed with flavour with high quality of acting, and there was a clear enjoyment in rising to the hamminess that the part requires. What a shame though that the first part of Cherubino’s famous aria "Voi che sapete" was spoilt by affected heavy breathing, meant to highlight the boy’s ardent emotion, but which only hindered the music’s clarity and for an effect that the voice alone should achieve.
Baritone Benjamin Bevan gave us an Almaviva who really was an aristocrat; burly and bored, he roamed and lounged while deploying a voice that is unusually soft and supple. Lacking a grain to it, the lyrical quality of the voice was ideally suited to the Count’s moments of seduction, but Bevan summoned up plenty of thunder and bluster, particularly in the Countess’ bedroom in Act II, and his "Hai gia vinta la causa... Vedro mentr'io sospiro" was a highlight of the evening. His neglected Countess was sung by Susanna Fairbairn, who projected well, and veered between vocal ranges easily enough, though there was a slight waywardness at the top, more of a warble than a trill, that was slightly uneasy on the ear. Fairbairn’s approach to phrasing was particularly noticeable; the Countess is a role where everything said and the way it is said matters, and Fairbairn captured inherent sadness and nobility of the character well.
As the two other major servants, Wendy Dawn Thompson and Harry Nicoll made successes of Marcellina and Don Basilio (also Don Curzio) respectively, both imbuing their voices with the personalities of the characters. Thompson’s mezzo had a shrewish quality initially, a brittle quality that bloomed into warmth as she regained her son and built bridges with her old rival and new daughter-in-law. Nicoll’s high, wheedling tenor perfectly fit his mincing, fastidious and unpleasant Basilio and was of constant interest whether singing or otherwise. As Bartolo, and later Antonio, Eric Roberts gave a decent comic turn, but struggled to push over the orchestra, and his voice had a touch of wear to it. Lucy Knight’s Barbarina was sweetly sung and needed more lines to show what she could do.
Robert Houssart kept lively tempi and drew warm and accurate playing from the LFO orchestra, but did not offer a revelatory reading, nor one that unlocked all the fizz. He was, however, obviously attentive to the needs of the singers, particularly in ensemble scenes. A simple, warm production that did much to cheer on a rainy and bleak weekend.
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