At least they didn’t have it on Valentine’s Day. Unless you’re Cherubino, you would have been disappointed. There are few operas that offer a more comprehensive overview of the intersection of love, sex, and class than Le nozze di Figaro, but Jean-Louis Martinoty’s “new”* Wiener Staatsoper production irons out this complex into a rush of pure teenage hormones. Everyone gets some, but what it means, I don’t know. Most of the music isn’t anything to remember either. How can Mozart be so boring? Let us investigate.
Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro. Wiener Staatsoper, 2/16/2011. New production premiere by Jean-Louis Martinoty with sets by Hans Schavernoch, costumes by Sylvie de Segonzac, lights by Fabrice Kebour. Conducted by Franz Welser-Möst with Luca Pisaroni (Figaro), Sylvia Schwartz (Susannah), Erwin Schrott (Count), Dorothea Röschmann (Countess), Anna Bonitatibus (Cherubino), Daniela Fally (Barbarina), Sorin Coliban (Don Bartolo).
After his fiasco of a Don Giovanni, director Jean-Louis Martinoty is back and not very welcome this time (there were many resounding boos at his curtain call). Like the Don, his Figaro aspires to detailed Personenregie but its overall effect is consistently blunted by his failure to conceive of characters or concepts beyond the level of small-scale gestures. It’s superficial interpretation that is happy to take Barbiere or La mère coupable into account, but won’t actually answer any important questions about what Figaro is about, and declines to approach its more serious themes. There are many trees, but there is no forest. There are notes, but no phrases. On the whole, it is a little better than the Don, because it is less ambitious–there are no random time-traveling missions–but what’s there is profoundly uninspiring and amazingly dull. Watch, this is my favorite opera, I’m about to get really really offended. Because I think this direction of this production is borderline-incompetent, certainly not worthy of a major opera house.
The stage is raked with the twisted proscenium arches familiar from Don Giovanni. The only explanation I can formulate of the set is that Martinoty had set designer Hans Schavernoch’s plans sitting on his desk next to the book of inspirational paintings sent by his dramaturg, and sent the latter to the shop by mistake. Each setting is a different background collage of vaguely relevant artwork of various sizes. We get lots of animal parts in Act 1 (hunting for something? trophies?), ladies’ desk objects and the lower half of a huge crucifix in Acts 2 and 3, and giant wheels of cheese at the start of Act 4. (I got really hungry at this point! Because, cheese. While all the characters were also busy being hungry. Hungry for LOVE.) Later, obviously we got paintings of flowers. Furniture is sparse and augmented by some out-of-period cushions, which jar with the rest of the design. Also, the Count keeps a skull on his desk, sitting on top of a large tortoise. Don’t ask me, I just watched the thing.
The paintings don’t do anything for the drama except distract, their symbolism alternating between too obtuse to do anything and too obvious to do anything. Oh, they cause acoustic problems, there’s that. The lighting by Fabrice Kebour is better than that of Don Giovanni, with fewer random changes. But it is still fussily complicated and leaves key spots of the stage too dark to make out the action at times, even in Acts 1 and 2.
The one uniform theme of the production is the juvenile quality, straight from the model of Slutty 18th Century. The costumes (by Sylvie de Segonzac) are plain, non-extravagant period jobs, but heavy on the cleavage, and everyone feels everyone else up indiscriminately. This makes differences in class, age and status disappear, as does the generally casual atmosphere of the action. I don’t think Figaro and Susannah’s relationship is the same as Cherubino and Barbarina’s, and certainly not as the Count and Countess’s or the Countess and Cherubino’s (which is here very touchy-feely, safe to say that Martinoty read a summary of La mère coupable), but here they all act basically the same way. It cheapens the importance Susannah and Figaro put on foiling the Count’s plan, AKA the key plot conflict of the whole opera. It’s just not interesting, and also not at all sexy. A little innuendo would have gone a lot further than this much groping.
The staging of “Deh vieni, non tardar” annoyed me in particular. Susannah begins it from upstage, behind one of the paintings (which are scrims in this act, here lit to be translucent) while the Countess mimes it for Figaro’s benefit. Conventionally, Figaro doesn’t see Susannah in this number, so he doesn’t wonder why she is wearing the Countess’s dress. Here, he is given the Countess in Susannah’s dress to look at. Obviously, Martinoty is thinking of another “Deh vieni,” Don Giovanni’s serenade mimed by Leporello. But Susannah is a much more honest character than the Don, and with this intermediary of the Countess, she never gets her personal moment of glory, and we never get that moment of genuine affection. It also fails to emphasize that Figaro recognizes Susannah by the sound of her voice, as is important later in the act. What do we gain? Nothing, so far as I can tell.
He is content to tinker in this way. I do not object to any of his ideas because they depart from convention, rather because due to a lack of a guiding theme they do more to confuse than advance the narrative. And, since this small-scale busy handwork is the most substantive thing in the production, I think it’s worth examining it closely to see if it holds up to scrutiny. Here’s another example. Like in the DVD of this production, the Act 1 unveiling of Cherubino is oddly complicated. Cherubino surreptitiously moves from the covered chair into a chest but leaves his boots sitting in front of the chair, and when the Count unveils the chair, apparently here not just describing the moment but seeing the boots and thinking that Cherubino is there, he then takes off the cloth and is surprised not that Cherubino is there as usual but rather is surprised that he is not there. Cherubino emerges from the chest shortly afterwards. But it’s the surprising collapse of the Count’s story and the actual presence of Cherubino that makes the moment work (I remember Simon Keenlyside as the Count doing a priceless double take upon seeing Cherubino at this point), and here one of the best revelations in opera is destroyed.
For the most part, Martinoty plays by the book. But, in what I suspect in an attempt to look casual, much of the comedy ends up too imprecisely timed to be funny (have you ever seen Susannah’s “senti questa” fail to get a laugh? welcome to this production). The biggest laugh was stuttering Don Curzio, which is not a good sign. Serious moments are also fluffed: “Contessa perdono” is sung by the Count staring straight out at the audience, not looking at the Countess at all, as the set opens up to a heavenly blue sky. This leads to a confusing final image that suggest the Countess might actually prefer Figaro over her husband, which would be interesting if it had been pursued anywhere else in the staging, but as far as I could tell it wasn’t. (Who’s betting Martinoty was thinking of “Dunque son” from Barbiere? He loves talking about these connections in interviews.)
Franz Welser-Möst’s conducting was OK. In the recap of the overture there were some surprising coordination issues between the various sides of the string section, and some stage-pit problems in Act 1 (particularly in Bartolo’s aria), which improved over the course of the evening. Generally things worked fairly effectively. But I wish he had taken command a little more, it was a little slack and more routine than brilliant, and some tempos were in my HIP-oriented mind lacking in verve. My HIP self greatly appreciated the presence of tasteful ornamentation in “Dove sono” and “Deh, vieni,” however. Recitative tilted heavily towards speaking, however I’m OK with this. I could do without the smartass continuo quoting bits of Marcellina’s Barbiere aria on her entrance. We get it.
The cast was not bad, but the overall level was disappointing and failed to catch fire somehow. Luca Pisaroni is a charming Figaro with a light, somewhat generic but technically secure voice, but didn’t really have the stature to command the evening (except in the literal sense, he is very tall), and neither did anyone else.
Dorothea Röschmann’s voice has darkened and lost some control and flexibility in the last few years, and her high notes can turn shrill, but she remains a elegant singer. As the Countess, she was the most glamorous voice onstage by a long shot. Unfortunately, the childish interpretation of the Countess prescribed by the production (including breaking her china at the opening of Act 2) didn’t seem to fit her personality, and while her flirtiness was sometimes charming, she lacked emotional depth. Her “Dove sono,” honest, involved that skull on the Count’s desk. At the end, she crossed center stage and planted herself with the steely determination of a Konstanze about to speed up at the end of “Marten aller Arten,” which did not feel right somehow. But she provided the best singing of the evening.
Erwin Schrott was making his role debut as the Count, and I think eventually he will be fine in the role. His voice is lower-pitched than most Counts’, but while the high parts didn’t exactly open out, the lower sections, of which there are many, sounded more solid than usual. The aria was not bad; he fluffed the coloratura, but who doesn’t? (Peter Mattei doesn’t, I guess, but he’s special.) His acting is on the fey side, and rather funny. Surprisingly, though, he doesn’t have the more violent and dangerous side yet, and was hard to take seriously. The production wasn’t exactly helping him there.
Like in Don Giovanni, there was a vocal reversal here by casting a lower-voiced Count than Figaro, but this didn’t bother me as much as it did there, somehow.
The Cherubino, Anna Bonitatibus, has an intriguing voice with a dark and kind of spicy sound, but her style is straight out of high drama seventeenth-century stuff and her phrasing lacks the musical purity for Mozart, with too many pauses and sighs. While a decent actress, she was not particularly individual. As Susannah, Sylvia Schwartz also failed to be memorable, with a flexible but somewhat unfocused and small voice and conventional acting. Daniela Fally’s strumpet Barbarina was finely sung, though I don’t understand the production’s idea here in making her a mini-Carmen with extensive boobage and very bright red lipstick. I’m not saying it couldn’t work, but here it was inexplicable.
One can hope that this production will get better in later performances and perhaps with other casts. There are four more performances: February 19, 21, 24, and 26.
I did see Anna Netrebko in the audience, back from New York already to see her man grab every woman onstage.
Photos except below copyright Wiener Staatsoper/Michael Pöhn.