Neil Armfield’s insightful staging of Le nozze di Figaro is making a welcome return in the lead-up to his direction of the Ring Cycle for the Wagner bi-centenary 2013 (the first complete cycle staged in Melbourne in a century).
Armfield’s view of late eighteenth century life in Spain is a dark one. The Almaviva household is held in the same disdain as the then monarch Carlos IV and his dysfunctional family. Goya inspires Dale Ferguson’s costumes; Countess Almaviva in particular, in oyster satin (and thanks to Rachelle Durkin’s supermodel physique and bearing) has the devastating allure of Goya’s beloved Duchess of Alba. Goya even makes an appearance in act three to ‘photograph’ Figaro’s nuptials and, just as he did in his portrait of the Royal Family, captures a household in sexual, social and political turmoil.
Fergusson’s sets feature deliberate anachronisms that, to my eyes, show the contemptible attitude of the Almaviva’s to their staff. A shabby, vinyl reclining armchair dominates act one for Cherubino then the Count to hide behind or in. It’s the sort of out-of-date furniture that would normally be dumped but here is given to the servants to furnish their quarters. For the wedding celebrations the Count provides a battered tea urn and cafeteria crockery!
I prefer a deeper voiced Figaro contrasting the lighter voiced Count as here. With that gruff edge to his voice Teddy Tahu Rhodes exemplifies the peasant against the more refined voice of Peter Coleman-Wright’s aristocrat. In “Se vuol ballare” he embellishes the repeated theme. The result is a little ungainly but in terms of characterisation the growl works splendidly. Even better in “Non più andrai” he directs the second verse to the Count, seated smugly in the recliner chair, and, towering over the trembling Count, warns him his days of philandering are over too and reminding us how revolutionary this opera (and the play it derives from) was feared to be. Armfield fills the opera with insights like these and the principal singers — especially Coleman-Wright, Rhodes, Durkin and Tiffany Speight — integrate them into their performances with easy assurance.
Tall and sleek Durkin’s arms glide naturally into gestures both graceful and, at appropriate times, erotic. When, in act two, the Count tries to force her away from the door to force open the closet where Cherubino hides, he at first violently lays his gloved hands on her only to let them roam over her breasts and body making the sexual connection still existing between the two — despite their current marital problems — alarmingly obvious. Durkin’s response to this rare moment of contact with her faithless husband, melting at his touch, is simultaneously elegant and erotic. Erotic obsession is the basis of this opera after all and this insight into that eroticism created a frisson. The Countess’s attraction to Cherubino was insightfully played up too; the Countess wilting to his act two serenade like Gomez used to when Morticia spoke French.
Speight’s voice grows in size and stature with each appearance. Speight also has charming way with and special claim on Mozartian maids. Sian Pendry bravely displays the rampaging teenage sexuality of Cherubino behaving at times like a spaniel in heat! She neatly negotiates the rapid pace set for “Non so piu” beautifully enunciating the words as do he rest of the cast.
The secondary characters weave through the story with only occasional success. Elizabeth Campbell’s Marcellina is another character caught in a precarious situation. Her frustrations run deeper than mere anxiety over her age. Her favour with Count Almaviva, depends on her winning her case against Figaro. In Campbell’s hands there is that sense Marcellina is greatly relieved when she finds Figaro is her son and she can escape to bourgeoisie security as Bartolo’s wife. When Armfield’s production was first staged Don Basilio’s and Marcellina’s arias were cut.
They were restored for the revival in Sydney, although Marcellina’s is excised for this Melbourne season. The tenor Robert Tear specialises in singing Basilio and devotes an entire essay to him in his book Singer Beware offering an illuminating analysis into “the quality of thought which might invest a small part with a fresh interest and, at the same time, probably alter the usual balance of the opera. “If the aria, is cut,” he writes, “the character becomes extremely hard to play simply because the chance of explaining his character to the audience is taken away, all the earlier behaviour seeming merely eccentric or stupid.” Basilio is a man of great intelligence, according to Tear, “more intelligent than anyone else in the Almaviva household” the seemingly bizarre aria “In quelli anni cui dal poco” is making a point about this “musician/thinker’s position in a philistine aristocratic house of the period.” While the near-revolutionary sentiments of Figaro’s are extrovertly apparent in Armfield’s clever twist in “Non più andrai”, there could have been similar possibilities with Basilio’s aria explaining his philosophy and how it helped him survive the “fooleries of class and politics” surrounding him. Conductor Marko Letonja actually highlights the ascending horn passages at the end of Balisio’s aria so they ring out with a confidence worthy of Beethoven and suggest maybe the triumphant Basilio is another plebeian hero. Kanen Breen plays Basilio primarily for laughs and by the time the aria arrives the character has become a rococo incarnation of Kenneth Williams. It’s an assured performance however; the character slithers around with decreasing fear of his betters.
There is a touch of early music practice from the orchestra; fortepiano replacing the usual harpsichord and the strings adopting that occasionally ‘wiry’ sound associated with early music practice. Acts one and two work the best in this current revival, the sexual and social strain made delightfully relevant by director and cast.