Mozart, da Ponte and Figaro ride again – NBR New Zealand Opera

MOZART  – Le Nozze di Figaro (Opera in Four Acts)

NBR New Zealand Opera 2010 Wellington (May) and Auckland (June)

Cast: Wade Kermot (Figaro), Emma Pearson (Susanna), Gennandi Dubinsky (Dr. Bartolo), Helen Medlyn (Marcellina), Wendy Dawn Thompson (Cherubino), Riccardo Novaro (Count Almaviva), Nuccia Focile (Countess Almaviva), Richard Greager (Don Basilio), Richard Green (Antonio), Derek Hill (Don Curio), Alexandra Ioan (Barbarina), Helen Lear, Polly Ott (Bridesmaids)

Lionel Friend (conductor)

Chapman Tripp Opera Chorus (Michael Vinten – chorus-master)

Vector Wellington Orchestra

St.James Theatre, Wellington

Saturday 15th May

NBR New Zealand Opera’s most recent production of the perennial favourite, Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” looked and sounded splendid on the opening night in Wellington. Despite one or two modernist quirks of production, this was definitely a “period” setting, with costumes, surroundings and ambiences that mostly sat well with the music and the drama. Onstage, behind an initially overbearing, almost fortress-like latticed wall which opened and closed at will were rooms with largely bare, elevated walls and tall doors, the spaces expanding, contracting or dividing to suit whatever scene. Interestingly, a friend was reminded by the clear lines and cool, austere spaces of Vermeer’s paintings; while another remarked upon the scale of things creating a kind of dolls’ house scenario. Generally designer Robin Rawstorne’s spaces and David Eversfield’s lighting nicely reflected nearly each scene of the drama’s business at hand, though I felt the extreme height of everything took away some of the conspiratorial drawing-room ambience of many of the goings-on, especially in the First Act. And while I appreciated (perhaps slightly voyeuristically) the luxury and spaciousness of the Countess’s bourdoir, I thought the window stylistically out of keeping with the design of everything else, as well as being too high for Susanna to plausibly announce to us that she could view the progress of the errant pageboy Cherubino, once he’d made his escape by jumping out of the same opening.

It would follow from this that I had misgivings regarding the final act’s setting – instead of a “garden”, there were stylised Mediterranean-like marble terracings, sensuously curved and almost aromatically lit, but in my view out of keeping with the more naturalistic environments of the previous three acts of the drama. If the intention was to create a kind of dream-sequence of denoument and resolution, then well and good; but one would have thought Mozart and da Ponte wished the motivations of thought and action as earthy and driven in this scene as in any other. Having made my complaint I feel bound to report that the acting and singing of the characters, as well as the orchestral playing (with especially beautiful winds!), transcended any visual incongruities, and, with the great moment of the Countess’s forgiveness of her errant husband making as tear-inducing and lip-trembling an encounter as ever, the drama’s point of fulfilment was triumphantly reached and borne aloft during the sparkling finale that followed.

The aforementioned medieval fortress-like curtain which greeted us upon our arrival was in direct contrast to the sparkle of the overture and the saucy exchanges between Figaro and Susanna during the first scene (rather TOO cramped a space, even with the high walls, it seemed to me). Wade Kermot’s Figaro was handsomely sung, with the occasional note richly upholstered, giving us ample notice of his voice’s expressive potential. The only thing I felt underdeveloped in his portrayal was true wit, the kind of joviality that would have set him up so well in his previous career as Seville’s most famous factotum, and enabled him to be more than a match this time round for his employer-cum-adversary, the Count. This quality his on-and-off-stage partner Emma Pearson had in abundance as Susanna, in a sense, her “lightness of being” acting as a foil to her lover’s seriousness of purpose, but always suggesting depth of character and whole-heartedness – a lovely performance, deliciously sung.

Their noble counterparts, Riccardo Novaro as Count Alvaviva and Nuccia Focile as his Countess Rosina, each presented a richly-wrought stage character. Riccardo Novaro’s elegantly-sung Count possessed a focused suavity, through which flickered the fires of his restlessness and sexual appetite, a portrayal finely calculated save for what I thought an unfortunately gratuitous kick which he aimed at a servant girl at the beginning of the Third Act. As for his “predatory spider” aspect in the “dream-garden” at the end, it was, by that stage in the proceedings, a case of “desperate people doing desperate things”, and acceptable as such, rather like the hilarious “coitus interruptus” scene involving the noble couple and Susanna earlier, in the Countess’s bourdoir. Nuccia Focile’s gorgeous Countess readily brought to mind the humanity and girlishness of Rosina, the ward of Doctor Bartolo, amid her stylish grace and nobility of bearing. Although less “pure” than I remembered, her voice and delivery possessed the power to move one to tears, as with the hushed reprise of her “Dove sono” in Act Three, and the rapt beauty of her reconciliation with her husband at the end.

One of the comedy’s main catalysts was the testosterone-laden pageboy Cherubino, here played with real comic flair by Wendy Dawn Thompson. She nicely contrasted her two important solos, a breathless, somewhat tremulous “Non so piu”, describing the driven desperation of the boy’s libidinous urgings and besotment with womankind in general, and a rather more considered and ritualistic “Voi che sapete” (variations on a similar theme). In both of these sequences I thought the singer brought less “body” to the voice than I would have expected from such expressions of post-pubescent excess, but her acting fleshed the character out nicely each time. However, I thought the Act One sequences of the page’s concealment and discovery by the Count awkwardly handled, and the somewhat muddled consignment of the hapless youth to the glories of military life didn’t here really take up the cues Mozart’s music was giving to the stage action.

Better done were the scenes involving the plotters and schemers, with Helen Medlyn’s ripely-drawn and cracklingly-well-sung Marcellina leading the charge, richly aided and abetted by a cherubic-faced Gennandi Dubinsky as Doctor Bartolo, occasionally uneven of voice in his “La vendetta’ aria, but investing his character with requisite surges of ill-humour and malicious glee. As good were Richard Greager as an oily, supercilious Basilio, adding his vituperative counterpoints to the ensembles with brightly-lit focus and relish; and Richard Green’s bluff, rugged Antonio, the gardener with a snitch against Figaro for trying to make a fool of him over Cherubino’s escape from the window. Derek Hill’s engaging cameo of the notary Don Curio did without the usual disfiguring stutter, while Alexander Ioan as the gardener’s daughter Barbarina sang her “lost pin” aria most fetchingly, acting “for two” throughout with quick wit and charm, her pregnancy wonderfully pronounced, and brought to bear most embarrassingly for the Count regarding his past interactions with her.

Although the chorus doesn’t have a great deal to sing in this work, the servants and their families are a kind of omnipresence, seen or unseen, embodying the underclass dominated by the likes of the Count and Countess and the system that supports the feudal relationship. Their few appearances were striking, almost Breughel-like in their deployment and their variety of colourings, thanks  in part to Elizabeth Whiting’s adroit juxtapositionings of work and festive costumings. Their singing had plenty of bright tones and engaging rusticity. It was also good to hear the Wellington Orchestra sounding in better all-round shape than when I heard them at the opera last, in Tchaikovsky’s “Eugen Onegin” the previous year. All credit to conductor Lionel Friend for securing such lively and well-upholstered playing, with some deliciously-delivered wind cameos accompanying some of Mozart’s most beautiful operatic arias.

If there was justification for yet another “Figaro” from our opera company, it was here amply-realised by Aidan Lang’s thought-provoking and highly entertaining production.

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