Mozart – Le nozze di Figaro

ONP – Palais Garnier, Thursday March 30 2006

Conductor: Sylvain Cambreling. Production: Christoph Marthaler. Sets and costumes: Anna Viebrock. Il Conte di Almaviva: Peter Mattei. La Contessa di Almaviva: Christiane Oelze. Susanna: Heidi Grant Murphy. Figaro: Lorenzo Regazzo. Cherubino: Christine Schäfer. Marcellina: Helene Schneiderman. Bartolo: Roland Bracht. Don Basilio: Burkhard Ulrich. Don Curzio: Eberhard Francesco Lorenz. Barbarina: Cassandre Berthon. Antonio: Frédéric Caton. "Recitativiste": Jürg Kienberger.

I’m beginning to see the light

Christoph Marthaler’s 2001 Salzburg production of Le nozze has generated a lively debate in Paris. Marthaler certainly knows his trade: this is a well-directed, well-rehearsed farce – though it doesn’t neglect the story’s more poignant potential – and the youngish cast throw themselves into it with visible enthusiasm.

There are plenty of good gags and amusing anachronisms that interact with libretto and score without betraying them. Recitatives are interrupted by Antonio wheeling on and installing props. The count uses an electric drill to open the locked door. Susanna takes down the canzonetta on an old typewriter. The conductor takes snapshots of the various on-stage couples with a flash camera. At the end of act two, as the countess, Sausanna and Figaro sing “Son tre mazzi,” Marzellina, Bartolo and Basilio are increasingly plagued with tics. The count and Susanna dance a convincing paso doble to “Crudel! Perché finora farmi languir cosí,” and Marzellina, visibly delighted to get to sing her own big solo number “Il capro e la capretta,” at one point shouts “Everybody” and has the audience clap hesitantly along.

But there are numerous references, funny or not, to the vicissitudes of marriage, and as the countess sings “Dove sono” we see, in the background, a young bride and bridegroom bashfully signing the register to embark on dubious wedded bliss.

Also, interestingly, a clownish busker figure living in the attic among stuffed animals and a dusty harpsichord (representing, presumably, the past) descends to the present to check, we guess, the contemporary relevance of the tale and play the recitative continuos on a variety of street instruments: a portable synthesiser, a melodica, wine bottles, a trayful of glasses… I found this both amusing and poetic, but, judging from the heckling, I may not have been in the majority.

All this would have made for a fun, successful production in the right sets and costumes. The trouble is, Marthaler and Viebrock are so obsessed with the soul-destroying aesthetic (if aesthetic is the word) of communist East Germany that every opera they produce must, inevitably, be set there. This may be made to work, more or less, with Katia Kabanova (set in the decaying courtyard of a Soviet-style housing project). Here, it wasn’t clear where we were (except, of course, E. Germany, meticulously reproduced).

At the rear of the single set was a registry office complete with Hygiaphone, staffed by Bartolo, Marzelina and Curzio. To either side were doors marked D and H. Towards the wings were displays, on stands, of cheap wedding clothes. Did registry offices in E. Germany rent outfits to brides and grooms? Or were there registry offices in their department stores? Susanna and Figaro were waitress and waiter respectively. But who exactly, under a communist regime, were the “count,” the “countess,” the “page”? What sense could be made of references to feudal rights, a garden or Seville? On what authority could a count, in this setting, send Cherubino off to the wars? Why did people enter and exit through the toilets? And so on.

I’ve seen and enjoyed many good modern productions, updating old operas; in Paris, modern stagings are the norm and a conventional one, like Savary’s Rigoletto at the Bastille, is in the minority. I never before quite grasped what all the fuss, made usually by our American friends, over Eurotrash was about. Here, I think I did. It was too bewildering. It didn’t work, and was ultimately simply tiresome.

A friend of mine remarked that the tables are turned since the early 80s. We remember the countesses and Susannas we saw, but forget the men. The last time I saw Le nozze at the Palais Garnier, the countess was Margaret Price. Before her, it was Lucia Popp and before her, Kiri Te Kanawa. These days, the men are considerably better than the women. Peter Mattei and Lorenzo Regazzo were excellent and even our Basilio, younger than usual, was strong.

The most convincing of the women was Helene Schneiderman as Marzellina: she was clearly the most experienced actress. Heidi Grant Murphy has a pretty voice and uses it very prettily too, but even from row three of the orchestra stalls I couldn’t hear her over the Mozartean orchestra and wonder how she’ll get on at the Bastille in two roles next season. Christiane Oelze was unsteady in “Porgi amor,” improving later for “Dove sono” but still sounding slightly unready for the part, studious rather than sumptuous. Christine Schäfer was a fair Cherubino-in-streetwear and got an ovation, but to my ear she made the part sound difficult and I certainly wondered how she was going to manage as Violetta in next season’s (Marthaler and Viebrock, so no doubt set in communist E. Berlin) production of La Traviata.

I hear the opera orchestra have “got it in” for Cambreling. They sounded lazy and bored. The reception was mixed indeed and people left the theatre chattering madly; which at least, as Gerard Mortier, director of the opéra national remarked, shows opera is a living art…

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