SECULAR LITURGIES

Pasquale and Figaro

Tom Sutcliffe on disappointing productions of two masterpieces, marred by the directors’ attempts at inventiveness

 

Don Pasquale and The Marriage of Figaro, subtle comedies about love which need to be truthfully realized to work their sublime magic, are both masterpieces every opera company needs in their standard repertoire. The Donizetti was first done at Glyndebourne in 1938. What a shame that Glyndebourne’s new Pasquale and ENO’s new Figaro misfire. The problem in both cases is women directors with ideas they think show off their inventiveness. Both new productions initially got decent reviews, which suggests to me that colleagues do not remember how these pieces work, or cannot recognize how new jokes may obscure or suppress the soul of the piece, its original genius.

Destroying the fun

I have seen Mariame Clément’s work in Bern and Strasbourg, and at Glyndebourne also she gets up to tricks which destroy the fun. It’s not her fault that Jonathan Veira as Pasquale lacks the vocal quality to embroider a rounded picture of the old man who wants to disinherit his nephew for wanting to marry Norina, a young widow, and get a family for himself.

Actually, Glyndebourne Touring Opera’s Spanish Norina, Italian Ernesto, and very young-looking Ukrainian Malatesta all lack the colourful characterized singing one wants. It is time Glyndebourne remembered that GTO’s heavy subsidy comes with strings attached: the casts, director and conductor should be young and British – as they used to be in the Seventies and Eighties.

Clément’s designer, Julia Hansen, uses a revolve from the very start to show a series of rooms which suggest all the scenes are in the same house (they are not). The biggest liberty taken by Clément is with the chorus, who are no longer the huge flood of servants and salesmen engaged by Norina once Pasquale has signed the marriage contract, but instead an elegant snobbish Glyndebourne-style gathering of lookers-on or opera-goers in white ancien régime costumes, bewigged and powdered. If what the chorus is singing does not fit this imposed scenario, the surtitles vanish. Basically Clément lets herself off from any complicated or challenging staging of comic hyperactivity, and substitutes something quite meaningless and irrelevant – but smart-looking. The only good thing about the show is Enrique Mazzola’s conducting.

Innovations

Fiona Shaw’s main idea about The Marriage of Figaro at English National Opera is that the Count’s country house, Aguas Frescas, is a cross between an Irish palazzo during the Anglo-Irish ascendancy and a maze inhabited by Mr Minotaur Almaviva, the epitome of beastly maleness.

Peter McKintosh’s revolving set whirls round without ever creating a suitably focused and contained room space. The Countess’s bedroom in the second act (with its cupboard where Cherubino hides) is furnished – like Norina’s room in Pasquale – with a bath. In fact I whispered, ‘Ah, the Peter Jones bathroom department’, to my wife, which made her giggle a lot more than the production did.

I knew we were in for a bad evening before the music started because Shaw had introduced an original comic touch – a buzzing insect inside a harpsichord which stood to the right of the front stage. A man in dark glasses, Handelian costume and hat fiddled with the instrument ineffectively, to silence the insect. He had a white stick and turned out to be the first blind Basilio in history (I hope the last). Why would the Count ask this Basilio to go looking for Figaro or anybody? Obvious! If you want to find something, ask a blind person!

Lacking in energy

Figaro has some classicglorious comic effects that never fail. The scene when Susanna learns that Marcellina is (or may be) Figaro’s mother, for instance, was badly staged by Shaw. And she omits altogether the chair business in the first act, when Cherubino and the Count follow each other into the same hiding place, though she has no idea of a workable substitute.

Equally, in the energyless final act there’s no hiding-place for anybody – so much for Shaw’s maze idea. Cherubino jumping out of the window on top of one of Antonio’s flowerpots does not work here either. Shaw is not an experienced director and has nothing to offer this great play turned into an operatic masterpiece. . An American Susanna, Devon Guthrie, was agreeably charming, and as always the Cherubino (Kathryn Rudge) scored with the audience. But the rest of the cast failed to impress.

The point of Beaumarchais’s original story is that the people in the plot are so human. The job of the director is to enable them all to come alive naturally. The Count is not a Minotaur. The relationship between servants and masters is intimate and concerned in fascinating ways – as Beaumarchais’s sequel (The Guilty Mother) makes clear. The only satisfying element at ENO was the conducting by Paul Daniel, previous music director.

Considering how little opera we have in Britain, it is truly mortifying when wrong people get their hands on the few chances to do something serious and good. ND

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