tue 28/05/2024

Le nozze di Figaro, Garsington Opera, OperaVision review - natural comedy, musical sublimity | reviews, news & interviews

Le nozze di Figaro, Garsington Opera, OperaVision review - natural comedy, musical sublimity

Le nozze di Figaro, Garsington Opera, OperaVision review - natural comedy, musical sublimity

Durable period setting enshrines perfect characterisations. Plus a Handel special

Perfection: Jennifer France and Joshua Bloom as Susanna and FigaroAll images by Mark Douet

Only the birds will be singing at country opera houses around the UK this summer. Glyndebourne seems over-optimistic in declaring that it might be able to launch in July; other companies with shorter seasons have made the regretful but right decisions to call it a year.

This reminder from 2017 of what such setups can achieve at the very highest level, newly downloaded on to the excellent OperaVision website, could hardly be more timely, nor the choice more uplifting for the soul: opera's greatest comedy, at a level of intimacy which the last major production to launch this year to date, albeit for one performance only, English National Opera's brave-new-world Figaro, could never hope to achieve.

Ultimately, it's more satisfying – supremely so, one glowingly acknowledges at the end of three hours which pass in a flash. I’ve never seen better. Joe Hill-Gibbins’s fresh take for ENO may have got more laughs early on – and let’s hope it has another chance to reboot and refine next season – but soon felt like it was Trying Too Hard, something Mozart, his librettist Da Ponte and the original Beaumarchais play never give the impression of doing. Garsington settled in 2010 on sophisticated Glyndebourne old hand John Cox, who brought with him a traditional 18th century setting niftily designed by Robert Perdziola – this is very much the Almaviva estate outside Seville, complete with an overweening gallery of Spanish nobleman, the dead weight of whose patriarchal tradition it will be maid Susanna’s responsibility to outwit (scene from Act Three, Cherubino among the bridesmaids pictured below) – and what seems, with this cast from seven years later, naturalistic and heartwarming characterisations from a true ensemble. Scene from Garsington's FigaroSolo set-pieces are filled with energy and meaningful gestures, never needing extra infill from surrounding gags. The standard apparatus is in place – a covered chair for Cherubino and the Count to hide behind/on, a closet-wardrobe out of which steps an unexpected incumbent – but the chair and its sheet are later used for barber Figaro to shave Cherubino as he pictures him going off to war, and we can see inside the wardrobe, open downstage, which adds an extra frisson to a faultlessly funny second act. The page, moreover, really can jump out of the window, over the balustrade and off across the lawn beyond, in that delicious stretch of garden at the Wormsley Estate remodelled on what the company had before in Lady Ottoline Morrell’s Oxfordshire haunt. The camerawork of Sonia Lovett’s perfectly-judged film production goes beyond to catch Cherubino running across the lawn with gardener Antonio in hot pursuit. The onstage garden of Act Four is poetic, too, even though on stage; it’s fine that the faces are sometimes too dark to see.

Most rewarding, though, is when you catch them in bright close-up. Everyone seems perfectly cast and you’d be happy to encounter all of them in any opera house in the world. Vintage, above all, is Jennifer France’s Susanna, a model of unaffected good nature sometimes taxed to spirited indignation, intelligent responses and always perfect vocal modulation (the supreme test of which is her serenade in the garden, “Deh vieni, non tardar”, perfectly enunciated with the right rolling rrrs, given a tender twist when the song she’s pretending to sing to the count is addressed to the jealous husband hiding nearby. Scene from Act 2 of Garsington FigaroJoshua Bloom as her Figaro is France’s equal for meaningful gesture, reacting believably and never the cheekie-chappie stereotype. "Non più andrai" is perfect, at an ideal tempo. Excellent casting, too, of Kirsten MacKinnon as a young Countess Rosina – remember, she’s still only 19, three years on from her time as Dr Bartolo’s resourceful ward, and hardly likely to have lost her sense of fun or to think that all's over in love. The one-eye-wet, the-other-dry approach is vivaciously and expressively projected throughout. She's also well matched to Marta Fontanals-Simmons's tall, credible Cherubino, but also to Duncan Rock’s Count (pictured above left watching Janis Kelly's Marcellina and France's Susanna fly at each other), with plenty of passion left between them. Rock bursts with animal energy, threatening authority and wounded honour, and his Act Three aria works supremely well, thanks also to the right space given by Douglas Boyd conducting a warm and vibrant orchestra.

This is a Figaro unafraid of silences, and capable of filling them with tension, in recitatives which have the perfection of spoken drama. There’s also the crucial extra dimension of sublimity when one least expects it – tears can flow freely in the Act Two finale and the Act Three Sextet, deliciously enriched by Janis Kelly’s consummate Marcellina and once again capped by this most ideal of Susannas on the top line, always the icing on a rich and gorgeous cake.

Watch Le nozze di Figaro from Garsington

It’s very much Jennifer France’s year; having managed 98 perfectly full top Cs and almost as many pitch-perfect arpeggios in addition to turning in a brilliantly funny performance as one of the two Alices in Gerald Barry’s mad Carroll opera at Covent Garden, she was due to return for London in a Handel programme alongside Mary Bevan and the Academy of Ancient Music conducted by Laurence Cummings. Listed for review on The Arts Desk, it was of course cancelled in the week when the axe fell on all live music-making, but I only discovered recently that there’s a film of the concert which did take place earlier in Cambridge’s Corn Exchange. France meets good contrast in the tones of what used to be the lighter of the two Bevan sisters’ voices, now darkened to suggest a mezzo and given the more pathetic utterances.

The modes of fast brilliance and simple gravity are reversed in the concert’s second half, with what for me is the highlight of the concert, France singing “Verso gia l’alma’ from Aci, Galatea e Polifemo. Sprightly orchestral playing belies the somewhat sober presentation; you wish that those who could would stand, at least for broadcast purposes, but Cummings certainly rises from his harpsichord seat to get the right shapely phrasing. Shame this comes without subtitles (the full list of arias, if not their operatic sources, is given on YouTube), but it’s a pleasant programme, if no substitute for hearing the arias in their proper dramatic context.

Watch the AAM's 'Handel's Heroines' concert

Jennifer France’s Susanna is a model of unaffected good nature, intelligent responses and perfect vocal modulation


Editor Rating: 
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 15,000 pieces, we're asking for £5 per month or £40 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take a subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?


Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters