Librettist: Lorenzo da Ponte
Balthasar Neumann Ensemble
Conductor: Thomas Hengelbrock
Producer/Director: Lotte de Beer
Andrè Schuen: Figaro
Julie Fuchs: Susanna
Gyula Orendt: Count Almaviva
Jacquelyn Wagner: Countess Almaviva
Lea Desandre: Cherubino
Monica Bacelli: Marcellina
Maurizio Muraro: Bartolo
Choir: Chœur du CNRR de Marseille
In normal times (Remember those?), if you were an opera buff and a Francophile, summer’s arrival could only mean one thing: It was time to pack up and head for Aix-en-Provence and its Festival international d’art lyrique (International Festival of Lyrical Art). Since its modest beginning in 1947 with a few low-key concerts and one opera (the little-known at the time Cosí fan tutte) the event has constantly evolved to nowadays present prestigious orchestras, world-famous artists, and numerous ground-breaking productions ranging from modern takes on war horses to specially commissioned works.
This year again, the program does not lack ambition or eclecticism, plus a long list of strictly enforced “health and safety” rules, lingering pandemic oblige. But then again, what rules wouldn’t we follow to hear some live music again? Therefore, back in the spring, my mom and I wasted no time getting tickets for Le nozze di Figaro because, obviously, how could we go wrong with Mozart? Our next steps were getting our vaccines, and then keeping our fingers and toes solidly crossed until D-Day. All accomplished.
Truth be told, my relationship with Mozart’s beloved opera buffa has been a tad ambivalent. While I’ve always been in awe of the flawless score (Who isn’t?), I’ve also kind of resented the fact that, when faced with her husband’s unsavory intentions towards her own maid, the lovely countess does nothing but laments, and then forgives. Even before our long-overdue #MeToo era, this had always felt wrong. Was it too much to ask to have her kick the bastard out, or at the very least take a hot young lover of her own?
Over two centuries later, enters fast-rising Dutch director Lotte de Beer and the promise of a feminist take on the misogynistic tale. So, it was with great expectations that we took our amazing seats among a bunch of German tourists in the festival’s most iconic venue, the wonderfully intimate Théâtre de l’Archevêché, in the courtyard of the imposing 14th-century palace of the city’s former archbishop, at the ungodly hour of 9:30 PM last Monday night.
Based on Pierre Beaumarchais’ 1784 stage comedy La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (The Mad Day, or The Marriage of Figaro), Le nozze di Figaro was the first of three landmark Mozart-da Ponte collaborations, which would later include no less than Don Giovanni et Cosí fan tutte. Although it was only a critical success in Vienna, it soon became a huge hit in Prague, helping Mozart reach the rockstar status that he still holds there, and the rest has been history, as the almost-packed-despite-all-the-restrictions theater confirmed on Monday night.
As if to underline that this production was indeed women-focused, the female singers turned out to be remarkably compelling, starting with French soprano Julie Fuchs, whose delightfully canny Susanna never stopped running around trying to do her job and to escape the count without missing a beat… or a note.
American soprano Jacquelyn Wagner handled the unforgiving role of the hapless Countess Almaviva with much grace and commitment, and an exceptionally meticulous phrasing. From her first appearance, in an aerobics outfit that would have made Jane Fonda proud, to the sublime, high road-taking “Più docile io sono”, she made a memorable impression.
I have never been a fan of trouser role, but I sure was internally cheering for Franco-Italian mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre every time she showed up and sang as the wide-eyed, totally endearing Cherubino.
Last, but not least, Italian mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli expertly rounded up the female cast as a no-nonsense Marcellina.
While the ladies deeply impressed, the men effortlessly fit the bill as well. Romano-Hungarian baritone Gyula Orendt was clearly having a field day as the lecherous Count Almaviva, the relentless predator that we all love to hate. In fact, the singer had such a charismatic presence, unflappable comic timing, in addition to a solid and flexible voice, that he made it hard for us to dismiss his character as just another jerk.
Not to be outdone, his direct rival, the assertive and dignified Figaro, immensely benefitted from Italian baritone Andrè Schuen's vocal talent and strong personality, as well as his easy chemistry with the vivacious Susanna, at least until jealousy got the best of him.
Italian bass Maurizio Muraro was a wonderful Bartolo in his smaller but essential role.
The chorus, from Marseille, fit in seamlessly in what ended up being a mad performance of the infamous “Mad Day”.
While the cast was highly competent in their various roles, the modern and resolutely farce-oriented production, introduced by a frantic commedia dell’arte-flavored overture, quickly proved to be frustratingly uneven. As much as I appreciated the fact that de Beer had whole-heartedly thrown herself into the exciting endeavor with a vivid imagination and a palpable sense of purpose, I also often felt that her generally commendable output was in dire need of some serious editing.
For each brilliant idea, and there were for sure plenty of those, like the countess’ wide range of suicide attempts and failures, or the hot iron symbolizing burning desire, or the transgenerational female bonding over knitting (pussy hats?), there was a gag that was irrelevant, too heavy-handed, or simply not funny, like a bunch of cheerleaders coming out of the blue, or countless doors being incessantly slammed (Slapstick anyone?), or some good old raunchiness that overstayed its welcome (The huge, inflatable, multicolored tree made of phalluses slowly unfolding at the end was not as innovative as it looked. Yayoi Kusama thought of it first and better).
I mean, did we really need a cream pie-throwing stunt during the ultimate feat of complexity and finesse that is the legendary sextet? That is one example of the main problem: While all the breathless agitation was going on in the admittedly smart, sitcom-worthy set of the first two acts, and then slowed down on the bare stage occupied by a large conjugal bed encased in the glass cage that was holding the countess prisoner (Get it?) and the subsequent make-shift forest, it was hard for Mozart’s magnificent score to receive all the attention it so richly deserves.
It was all the more regrettable that down in the pit the German Balthasar Neumann Ensemble did an outstanding job under the baton of Thomas Hengelbrock. From the dazzling overture to the superb finale, from the show-stopping arias to the extraordinary ensembles, the maestro and his musicians joined the singers to deliver a performance whose confident warmth, elegance and wit more often than not stood out in stark contrast to all the forced entertainment raging above them. And just that was worth the (stiff) price of admission.
That said, after having stumbled back into the real world at 1:30 AM, during the 5-minute walk and then the 5 flights of stairs leading to my apartment, we had to admit that there was no denying the pure joy of hearing beautiful music on a beautiful summer night in a beautiful Provençal town.