Figaro’s prenup at the Wiener Staatsoper

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.

*First seen at the Théatre des Champs-Elysées, 2003. [Insert offensive cliché about French people and sex here.]

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.


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  1. I know a baritone who sings the Count and he described the aria as sadistic and that little burst of coloratura at the end as the worst part of it (I think it's two bits if the usual cut isn't taken, but I've never heard that done). The lighter-voiced guys probably have an easier time of it, but the role did sound quite high for Schrott, and he was probably feeling it by that point.

  2. Could judge for yourself I suppose, here

    My performances were Munich, though. He is a hell of a Count, that Mariusz ;), very funny, sexy, anything.

  3. You know Zerbie, this kinda sucked. Not horrible or anything but a huge diappointment for a WSO Mozart NIU. Your description of the production is quite accurate and I'm afraid that it might have been one of* if not the most dramatically uninteresting Figaros I've seen.

    FWM's conducting was perfectly fine but not exceptional – again your description is spot on. The play time was rather fast – I somehow got the impression from you review that it might have gone a little slower.

    Some disagreement on the Singers.

    Sound about right for Pisaroni but I think his voice sounded a little drier than at the Met last season (you didn't review and I'm wondering if you observed something similar). At the Bastille this past fall the acoustics completely vitiated any attemp at objective evaluation.

    Vocally I thought Schrott was the star of the evening and I'm quite sure he'll develop his characterization over time. The coloratura trouble were quite glaring indeed and the more so against the otherwise superb vocalism.

    Bonitatabus does have a very interesting and attractive voice – though, as you say her singing leaves a bit to be desired.

    Roschmann's Countess we disagree on and her assumption of the role has been one of my biggest disappointments as an opera goer over the last decade. The lack of consistent legato, less than ideal mezzavoce, some odd phrasing, a sense of discomfort, and, for me at least, a lack of elegance in both singing and acting. I say this as someone who was not only prepared but indeed very eager to like Roschmann's Countess. She's my favorite Pamina, barely (and rarely if at all) surpassed as Susanna, Ilia and Vitellia, and a superb Elvira and Fiordiligi. I was anticipating her assumption of the Countess, the ne plus ultra of female Mozart roles with real excitment but was disappointed by her performance at Salzburg. At first I blamed Guth but then saw the McVicar from the ROH and now this. I hope she makes something of this in future but am not optimistic.

    *There were a couple of very sloppy revivals of the Miller at the Met. Unlike you I hated the Guth but there is no question that he had a clear, distinctive interpretation and excecuted it very well. No such clarity, distinctivness or execution here. Previous Vienna Figaros in the Ponelle and Strheler were excellent, better dramatically and top to bottow better sung.

  4. Yeah, I guess the tempos weren't literally slow, it was just kind of inert. Also, I'm a René Jacobs fan, and he's a speed demon.

    I didn't realize Pisaroni had sung Figaro at the Met, actually. I usually don't miss Figaro but I didn't go to that one, that was a rough period for me, long story.

    I can totally agree that Röschmann's characterization lacked elegance. I think there's still something to appreciate in her voice, though it does seem to be in decline, I fear. Can see what you mean, but maybe I was just eager to salvage something out of the evening. She does have problems with mezza voce.

    I heard some very good Monteverdi from Bonitatibus years ago in Munich, and she's also good in that Ercole DVD with Pisaroni–stylistically she seems stuck in the Italian Baroque, though.

    And as I said in my comment on the preview post, I thought the Miller Met Figaro revival with Siurina, Terfel, Harteros, and Keenlyside was close to perfect. Not sure if I would think the same today but at the time I was sobbing through the finale, it was so good.

  5. You didn't miss too much in tha Pisaroni Figaro. Luisi in his weakest outing of the season (though still excellent), Dasch as the Countess (yuck – clearly bellow what Roschmann did here) etc. I absolutely loved the Siurina et. all Figaro. The best overall performance of Mozart I've heard in almost 5 years. Problem is one could hear Mozart at the Met (and Munich)at or close to that level very consistently from say 1998-2006. Not so much recently.

    I was depressed after last night. That shouldn't happend after Figaro

  6. I understand Isabel Leonard suprung in for Bonitatabus. Curious if you've heard anything about how she did. Last year her Met Cherubino was slightly disappointing. I'm more of a Kate Lindsey man.

  7. Don't think I have an opinion on Isabel Leonard. My notes indicate I saw her sing half a Zerlina in one of those unremarkable Met Dons (dropped out sick, sub for Act 2, can't judge based on that–I think that was the one with Schrott plus classy but that night dull Stoyanova, not so good Susan Graham Elvira and unusually disappointing Langrée conducting), and a perfectly good what's-his-name the page in Roméo. It's funny you should mention Lindsey, I get her and Leonard mixed up… they look and sound quite similar. Liked Lindsey's Cherubino a lot, less enthused about her Niklausse.

  8. This is a fabulous review. I was interested because I had started to listen to the broadcast, but I didn't get too far. With regard to the Deh Vieni, it reminded of a similar staging of that aria that I just saw on an old DVD from 1996 at Glyndebourne with Finley, Hagley and Fleming among others. They staged it the same way and it really did not work, not only distracting from the aria but Fleming couldn't pull off the mime bit, either.

    The other point I wanted to make was that Gerald Finley is one of those singers I think who has the basso tinged timbre but the baritonal flexibility and top to do a fine count, though I agree about Mattei's coloratura (another production I saw on DVD).

    When I saw Pisaroni and Finley together in DG from London last year on a web stream, it was interesting to hear how when Finley starts singing, you hear just how *generic* Pisaroni really is.

    Thanks again.

  9. Saw the revival of this production Thursday night at the Staatsoper. You are correct that this is a dismal Figaro. Adam Fischer and his young cast did well by the music, but the production is dramatically inert, and ugly to boot. I would fire the Intendant over a production like this. It was first done in 2003, so she would have seen it and thought it marvelous. If one thinks this is worth one's euros to put on the stage, one should not hav a job. It's not regie-theater, which even when it doesnt work can be oddly compelling. This is 'regie gone missing' theatre. Martinoty's work is appalling and is that of the designers – the lighting is below the level of a high school play. Murky, spotty, unmotivated. This productionj would be a disgrace on any stage in the world.