Even Emperor Josef II would have thought this was a bad idea. The real-life monarch depicted in Peter Shaffer’s fictional play Amadeus quite memorably forbade ballet in his court operas. But the absurdity of the dancers carrying on with no music playing in Mozart’s Act III convinced the Emperor that he was in the wrong. It’s too bad that stage director Christopher Alden wasn’t able to arrive at the same conclusion after hearing Mozart’s ballet music with no ballet dancing.

© Craig T. Mathew & Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging
© Craig T. Mathew & Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging

Alden’s The Marriage of Figaro, as fully staged by the LA Phil, was severe, sparse, and practically humorless. The omissions of dancing during the ballet, processing during the wedding march, and Figaro measuring during the opening scene, were just some of the instances that highlighted Alden’s Figaro as far removed from Da Ponte’s intentions. Characters were often onstage long past their prescribed exits, the chorus had no dramatic part in the action, singing from far above the stage, and props were almost non-existent.

Far more troubling than the blocking, however, was Alden’s approach to two of the more lovable characters in all of opera, Susanna and Figaro. Figaro was stone-faced the entire evening, seemingly oppressed by his circumstances of class, and the lack of affection towards his intended was nonsensical. There was no joviality between the singers or lightheartedness. It was so severe in fact that practically none of the characters were sympathetic at all. The whole approach might have been plausible had the dramatic interactions contained some measure of dynamism, but more often then not an aria such as “Non più andrai” was passed off straight towards the hall with no acknowledgement between the characters.

Part of the result was the drama being confusing. There are a multitude of actions during the rapid recitatives that can be unclear for those not particularly familiar with the piece, and the small but important actions taken by the characters at these moments make no sense if they don’t actually do them. All characters, even Don Basilio and Don Curzio, were passively onstage for a lot of the time while not singing or dramatically involved. Of all of them, Barbarina may have had the largest part, often reclining in the Count’s arms or trembling in her father’s possessive grasp. If there was a message, it was the repressive atmosphere of the Count’s domain, symbolized by Barbarina, but without engendering pathos, the opera fell flat.

The installation by Jean Nouvel was a blood-red raked stage with various patterns, the back of which were wide, curved steps leading up to the organ console. It was quite impressive logistically. The lighting by Aaron Black accentuated the red stage and gave the whole evening a dark, repressive atmosphere. The costumes by Azzedine Alaïa were nondescript and modern, save some garish ruffles for the Countess and Susanna.

Musically, the production fared better, thankfully. Led by Gustavo Dudamel, the pared-down LA Phil played energetically and beautifully. Dudamel’s reading was straightforward, accentuated by varied tempi that never dragged but were thoughtfully paced. Robert Morrison led a creative and convincing continuo accompaniment from behind the harpsichord.

The singers were led by the marvelous soprano Dorothea Röschmann who sang a rapturous Countess. Her broad, shimmering soprano was radiant. Her blazing “Dove sono” was the highlight of the evening. Christopher Maltman was a loathsome Count and he sang with virulent sound, easily filling the hall with his honeyed baritone. His voice is disarmingly large, but nimble and dynamic. The two young lovers were more variable. As Susanna, Malin Christensson crooned her way through her phrases, straight-toning everything to the point of predictability. While a flexible voice, it often sounded compressed and was often drowned out by the orchestra. French bass Edwin Crossley-Mercer sang Figaro with a rich bass sound, but it was uneven throughout the register, distressed on top and underpowered at the bottom. Dramatically, whether prescribed or not, his character aroused apathy at best.

Rachel Frenkel’s Cherubino was beautifully sung. Her two arias were fine displays of sensitive phrasing and control. Bass John del Carlo was reliably proficient as Bartolo. Ann Murray sang Marcellina quite well, removing a lot of the caricature of sound which was a nice change. Simone Osborne as Barbarina was an eye-opener. She sang with a dynamically rich sound that had plenty of body. Dramatically, she is to be commended for all that she was asked to do in the production. If the production’s concept was successful at all, it is to be owed to her. William Ferguson was a youthful and dramatically adept Don Basilio. John Irvin as Don Curzio was another singer given much more to do than his very small part usually suggests and he handled it well.

All told, Mozart’s music came away victorious in spite of the production. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for Da Ponte’s libretto. Alden did his best to avoid its literal content as much as possible – surprising, given the LA Phil’s emphasis on Da Ponte’s trilogy over three years. Hopefully Così fan tutte, and Da Ponte, receive a better treatment than this Figaro did.

**111