Composer: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Budapest Festival Orchestra
Conductor & Director: Ivan Fischer
Hanno Müller-Brachmann: Figaro
Laura Tatulescu: Susanna
Roman Terkel: Count Almaviva
Miah Persson: Countess Almaviva
Rachel Frenkel: Cherubino
Ann Murray: Marcellina
Andrew Shore: Bartolo
After another couple of quiet weeks, my Mostly Mozart Festival program finally started in earnest and in the best company possible with Ivan Fischer and his highly regarded Budapest Festival Orchestra back in town two years after a Don Giovanni that had left us many enduring memories. I have been following Ivan Fischer since I became aware of his seemingly unlimited talent during his NSO days, and I was therefore eagerly counting down the days until our next rendez-vous, his staged concert of Le Nozze di Figaro on Sunday afternoon.
If the Don will always occupy a special place in my heart, Figaro and its well-balanced mix of silliness and melancholy, engaging characters and priceless ensemble singing, comes in as a close number two on my personal Mozart opera list. The dazzling overture, on the other hand, is definitely second to none. Now that its underlying social commentary has lost its bite, Le Nozze di Figaro may be just fluff, but it is still fluff of the highest caliber. My friend Steve and I were obviously not the only ones excited about such a prospect as the three shows had quickly sold out and an eclectic crowd was filling up the Rose Theater.
Based on Beaumarchais’ French farce Le marriage de Figaro, the opera revolves around a convoluted plot in which several characters freely swap gender and social class for various and occasionally far-fetched reasons. The first time I experienced it live, I felt about Figaro the way I feel about spy movies: I happily followed the story until I lost track, which inevitably made me confused and frustrated, before eventually putting everything back together again. But even in my most aggravated hour, the music had never ceased to be a constant source of enchantment.
On Sunday, the opera’s constant identity shuffling was emphasized as soon as the first glorious notes of the overture were heard, with the singers running around the democratic stage on which the musicians were also playing, swiftly changing outfits, whether from male to female or from sleek contemporary suits to fancy period costumes, or vice-versa. Watching this frenetic yet tightly controlled opening, it immeditately looked like we were in for another brazenly unusual performance brought together by the laser-sharp, boldly imaginative vision of its creator.
Truth be told, while the staging was once again minimalist yet cleverly evocative, this new endeavor owed most of its success to the superb orchestra and the inspired cast. In the title role, the German bass-baritone Hanno Müller-Brachmann was a handsome, straight-shooting Figaro with a far-reaching, pleasantly dark voice he seemed to be able to handle at will. He was well-matched with his no-nonsense Susanna, Romanian-American soprano Laura Tatulescu, whose energetic presence and assertive voice were a winning combination.
Looking dashing, if in a sleazy sort of way, in his perfectly tailored suits, tall and bald German baritone Roman Trekel cut a remarkable figure as the Count Almaviva. As his long-suffering wife, Swedish soprano Miah Persson exuded dignified grace and aching vulnerability under her blond aristocratic looks, and each one of her gorgeously soaring arias remained the highlights of the whole concert.
I am not a big fan of trouser roles, but I have to admit that German mezzo-soprano Rachel Frenkel was a totally endearing Cherubino. Irish mezzo-soprano Ann Murray was a spot-on Marcellina, first as a feisty broad pining for Figaro, then as his whole-heartedly dedicated mother. British baritone Andrew Shore did not miss a beat as Bartolo and aptly rounded up this impressive group of singers.
The intriguing set featured a few costumes on mannequins or hanging in the air waiting for the matching bodies, a couple of doors, more clothes hanging on racks on the raised round center platform, where an armchair was also conveniently placed for the quiproquo of Act 2. Other more or less successful comic touches included Figaro singing to a loose aristocratic mannequin head (a not so subtle hint at the soon-to-become-omnipresent guillotine?), Susanna asking directly Ivan Fischer if Marcellina was really Figaro’s mother and an extra randomly putting powdered wigs on some of the musicians’ heads between Act 3 and 4.
Mozart’s score for Le Nozze di Figaro remains one of its most towering achievements, and hearing it performed by a crack ensemble like the Budapest Festival Orchestra made it sound even more sparkling with life. Firmly conducted by maestro Fischer, who was discreetly sitting with the violin section when he was not casually standing, the musicians kept the pace brisk enough to impeccably keep up with the comic timing while still making sure to appropriatedly dwell into the more emotional arias. Let there be no doubt about it: Ivan Fischer has brilliantly struck again.