Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro may be the oldest opera regularly performed in modern seasons, but this doesn’t stop directors from trying to make it relevant to contemporary times. The themes explored by the plot are informed by ideas from the Enlightenment, with a touch of French revolutionary spirit; at Zurich Opera, director Jan Philipp Gloger presents a reading of this story focusing on the Count’s pursuit of every woman in sight, using his power to bully and sexually harass his staff. The story is translated to our time, in the palace of a rich “boss” (the Count) who has just approved a code of conduct against sexual harassment.

Morgan Pearse (Figaro)
© Herwig Prammer

Before the overture we see the Count and Don Basilio fixing the wording of a document (projected in a video) promoting a “healthy, safe workplace”, and condemning any inappropriate behaviour. Don Basilio is some sort of New Age enthusiast, with a man-bun, possibly the caricature of a “woke” character, but still completely subjugated to his employer. As the story unfolds, with the Count bullying Susanna and harassing Barbarina, the code of conduct is progressively amended, with rules removed or softened. The idea is not bad: Gloger highlights how this kind of “rulebook”, if promoted by the very people they should control, might end up being only a “progressive fig leaf”, perfect for abusers to hide behind.

Le nozze di Figaro
© Herwig Prammer

The idiosyncrasies between the plot and the modern times are solved with various degrees of success. The scene in Act 3 with the villagers praising and acclaiming the Count for his renunciation to the jus primae noctis becomes a celebration of this new code of conduct, which works quite well. The omnipresence of cellular phones, however, undermines several details of the story (can’t the Count just call, to find out if Cherubino has indeed gone to Siviglia or not?). More absurdities are introduced by baffling changes of place. The whole first act is not in Susanna’s bedroom, but in the courtyard, which makes the scene with Cherubino and the count hiding behind chairs and garbage bins completely illogical (there are many ways for both of them to get out of the courtyard, without having to hide).  The scene in the Act 2 is not in the Countess’ bedroom, but in the staff room, with servants coming and going, which makes the Count’s jealous reaction quite out of place. Cherubino jumping down the garbage chute was funny though. So the production was a bit of a mixed bag.

Le nozze di Figaro
© Herwig Prammer

Conductor Christoph König conducted the Philarmonia Zürich with a heavy hand, especially in the first two acts. The pit often overpowered the stage and the singers seemed strained in an effort to make themselves heard. The marvellous Act 2 finale was a quite unnecessary explosion of loudness. I found myself enjoying the recitativi more than the ensembles, which I deemed a shame, also because many of them suffered cuts. At the beginning, Sandra Hamaoui found herself chasing König’s very fast tempi and had trouble projecting over the loud orchestra; her soprano is perhaps a bit too high for Susanna. Her aria “Deh, vieni” was beautifully rendered, with smooth legato and a palpable, very effective sensuality in her delivery. Figaro was Morgan Pearse, whose strong baritone has a very exciting fast vibrato in the mid-lower range. He was very suited to the role, bold and cheeky, but his confidence shattered in a second when he believed Susanna to be unfaithful. Markus Werba gave the Count both authority and silliness when overwhelmed by the events. His baritone has the necessary depth in the lower register for this role, and a perfect mastery of Mozartian style. Sine Bundgaard sang the Countess with a soprano showing some signs of wear. Her high register sounded at times very metallic, and her breathing was perhaps not at its best (here the fast tempi of the conductor helped her, in “Dove sono”). She did produce some remarkable mezza-voce and gave dignity and authority to the humiliated Countess. Lea Desandre was the star of this matinee: her Cherubino was simply perfect. Her high, beautiful mezzo is ideal for the two arias, and her performance of “Non so più” was wonderful. Her intelligent, detailed acting (helped by her perfect physique du rôle) made the hormone-ridden teenager come truly alive. A spectacular performance.

As Dr. Bartolo, York Felix Speer showed a reasonable command of Canto sillabato in “La vendetta”, and Zurich ensemble veteran Malin Hartelius was a spirited Marcellina: her aria was not cut and she managed it well. The cast was completed by Spencer Lang as Basilio (whose aria was, alas, cut) with a high, pleasant tenor, Ruben Drole as a strong Antonio, while Barbarina was Chelsea Zurflüh, an Opera Studio singer whose soprano had already impressed in Il mondo della luna

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