In a class of their own

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Royal Opera House, London

Vicente Martín y Soler
Gran Teatre del Liceu, Barcelona

Reviewed in the Times Literary Supplement, March 2

Tales of servants and their masters continue to hold a degree of fascination which is all the more remarkable considering we live in an age when neither is supposed to exist any longer. They are a greater presence than ever on big and small screens no less than on spoken and sung stages, testimony to an obsession, perhaps, which our society seems unable to move beyond. But while the great upsurge of interest in this relationship that preoccupied eighteenth-century dramatists maintained a more or less exclusively comic aspect – indeed, it was comedy’s additional licence which permitted extended scrutiny of the subject in the first place – today’s appetite for the fact and fiction of upstairs and downstairs seems to be entirely in earnest, marked even by elements of nostalgia and an odd kind of mundanely literal curiosity.

In the world of opera, we’re stuck with the subject. Not because today’s composers are still obsessed with the theme, but because the servant–master relationship plays a crucial role in two, and an important supporting role in another, of the masterpieces of the genre, the three operas Mozart wrote with the Venetian librettist Lorenzo da Ponte. Le nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni, and Così fan tutte are, nearly 230 years after their composition, still probably the most frequently staged, widely enjoyed and loved of all operas. This is despite the fact that few nowadays are likely either to be swayed or particularly threatened by the pop-philosophical misogyny of Don Alfonso, just as few are likely even to raise an eyebrow at the spectacle of a Countess disguising herself as her maid. As for Don Giovanni, if today’s audiences are shocked at anything, it’s at the run of bad luck which prevents the poor man getting what he wants.

Perhaps most remarkable of all is the simple fact that these canonical operas should take such light-hearted spectacles for their subject. When one considers that the usual effect of music on text is to slow and intensify it, the very notion of an opera’s being genuinely funny is in itself counter-intuitive. As a rule of thumb, music monumentalizes rather than quickens dramatic action – which is why one can count on the fingers of one hand the operas really capable of making their audiences laugh. And given that three of these are by Mozart and Da Ponte, that doesn’t leave many others.

This year is a somewhat unadventurous one for the Royal Opera; even the season’s opener – Puccini’s Trittico (reviewed in the TLS on September 30, 2011) – was only twothirds new. November to January was mostly taken up with an extended run of La traviata (in Richard Eyre’s familiar production, now eighteen years old and ready, one hopes, to fly the nest), while the last month or so has seen Mozart’s three Da Ponte operas dovetailing each other merrily, none of them in new productions. This is, of course, a belt-tightening period and also, in terms of the company’s direction, a transitional one – the young Danish director Kasper Holten took over the company’s artistic direction at the beginning of the season, although it will of course be some time before his influence is properly felt. Still one cannot help wondering whether the house’s generous subsidies are really being earned this year.

That said, part of the brief of any subsidized arts organization is to make itself “accessible”, and attending the three Mozart operas, I was certainly aware of the large number of less experienced opera-goers in the audience. The laughter was convulsive, gasped in comical disbelief rather than issued in knowing delight at, for example, the mass pile-up of delusion and confusion that occurs in Figaro’s Act Two finale. Applause was also scattered willy-nilly. In Don Giovanni, the general consensus was that the opera ended – as it is thought to have done in the revised Vienna version – with the hero’s descent into the flames. The young Greek conductor Constantinos Carydis had to summon all his reserves in order to dampen down the whooping and continue into the opera’s two final and often rather flat-seeming numbers.

Much of the audience’s enjoyment derived from the supreme confidence with which the Uruguayan singer Erwin Schrott inhabits the role of Don Giovanni. In a piece where so much of the drama depends on the character’s powers of persuasion being immediately and palpably credible, Schrott has precisely what it takes. Oozing charisma, with his broad-shouldered sex appeal and rounded, honeyed, and masterfully wielded bass baritone, it is not only (for once) easy to understand why the other characters cannot resist his charms, but also incredible that they hold out for as long as they do. In this respect he is abetted by Francesca Zambello’s production which, despite its several clumsinesses, at least plays the opera to its comic strengths. Zerlina (Kate Lindsey) appears to make up her mind about the Don’s assets long before he has begun officially to seduce her. As a result, the famous duet “La ci darem”, though beautifully sung, has little sense of the psychological play so scrupulously portrayed by composer and librettist. The mood here is more of an impatient, mutual smash-and-grab affair. As for Donna Anna (Carmela Remigio), her “no” in the opening “rape” scene clearly, for once, means “yes” – which is an interpretation whose implications need to be carried through in Anna’s dealings with Don Ottavio (Pavol Breslik); they aren’t, and both characters came off awkwardly as a result. Ruxandra Donose made an impressive house debut as Elvira, but the only stage chemistry of any real subtlety is that between the master and his servant Leporello, sung by the excellent Italian bass Alex Esposito.

Like Zambello’s Don Giovanni, the revival of David McVicar’s staging of Figaro suffers slightly from the urge to put on airs. The idea of setting the drama in Paris in 1830 is a good one, the intention being to suggest a connection with a rather more leisurely and bloodless revolution than that of 1789. But the architectural styling, while appropriate to the period, rather dwarfs the action, which thrives on the bustle and confusion of the cramped stage. Only in the Act One finale, which takes place in Susanna and Figaro’s intended quarters, does the stage action appear to keep pace with Mozart’s ferociously dynamic music. That said, the taut, beautifully balanced musical direction of Antonio Pappano brought out everything one expects to hear from the score, and the soloists were outstanding. This was expected of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Aleksandra Kurzak, both of whom have appeared as Figaro and Susanna in this production previously (though at different times), less so from the two Americans making their house debuts as Count and Countess, Lucas Meachem and Rachel Willis-Sørensen, both previously unknown. Other highlights were Anna Bonitatibus’s Cherubino and Ann Murray’s Marcellina. Susana Gaspar, a Jette Parker Young Artist, also made an impressive debut as Barbarina. Her “l’ho perduta” was, appropriately, heartbreaking.

That one of Figaro’s most emotionally shattering moments concerns the losing of a pin by a young girl in a minor role is a good reminder of the way the three operas often undermine their directors by being at their most serious at apparently trivial points in the drama. That such an imbalance is at the heart of the third opera – Fiordiligi’s great plea for forgiveness “Per pietà” – has long been recognized, and most directors give the moment space to drive a broken-heart-shaped hole through the otherwise farcical framework of the drama. The trick is not to try to patch it up, but follow Mozart’s musical clues to the idea that Fiordiligi and Ferrando (in his Albanian alter ego) do in fact fall powerfully in love, and in a way in which the proprieties of the official conclusion are hardly likely to repair. Here, what is often mistaken for Mozart’s most flippant and cynical opera in fact shows itself as his most serious. By this I don’t mean that we should take sides with Don Alfonso – and indeed Figaro, for that matter – in suggesting that they are all like that – or, as Junius expresses the matter in Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, that “virtue in women is simply lack of opportunity”. On the contrary, the opera’s seriousness relates to its romantic but astonishingly profound and forward-looking analysis of the relation between emotion and behaviour, and Mozart’s way of allowing the musical momentum, rather than the plot, to shape the work’s emotional trajectory.

Jonathan Miller’s slick, witty and often hilarious modern staging skewers this aspect of the opera perfectly, especially here where it had the benefit of Colin Davis’s glorious understanding of the score’s ebb and flow. The staging was severely compromised the night I attended because the great English baritone Thomas Allen, celebrating his fortieth year with the Royal Opera with what all the reviews inform me was a masterful turn as Don Alfonso, was indisposed at short notice. He was replaced on stage by an ill-at-ease assistant director, and in the wings the by the Italian bass Carlo Lepore, in town to sing Bartolo in the next evening’s Figaro. Alfonso is, of course, the moral vacuum which binds the action together, so the character’s de facto absence made its presence felt, so to speak. But spirited performances from the other soloists – especially Malin Byström’s Fiordiligi and Rosemary Joshua’s Despina – rallied to replenish some of the performance’s lost sheen.

Da Ponte was something of an unknown entity when Joseph II announced him as his choice for the role of poet to his newly revived Italian theatre company in 1783. He had never written a libretto before and his first efforts in his official role – a reworking of Giovanni Bertati’s Il ricco d’un giorno for Salieri – was not a success. So when Joseph commissioned him to collaborate on a new opera with the celebrated Spanish composer, Vicente Martín y Soler, the offer was made in the spirit of a last-chance reprieve. In the event, and despite the best efforts of a growing number of detractors, Salieri among them, the resulting comedy turned out to be the biggest success of the 1785/86 season. Da Ponte chose to adapt a French farce by his compatriot Carlo Goldoni called Le Bourru bienfaisant, a clever choice, partly because it was originally written for the marriage of Joseph’s sister Marie Antoinette (a happy if perhaps not auspicious occasion), and partly because the range of characters, significantly greater than that of a stock buffa cast, would allow him to flex his dramaturgical muscles. To make his point, Il burbero di buon cuore (“the good-hearted curmudgeon”) was subtitled a “dramma giocoso”, a label which he later applied to Don Giovanni. This co-production between the Teatro Real in Madrid (where it appeared in 2009) and Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu is the first staging of the opera in the modern era. It does however contain some familiar music. When the opera was revived in Vienna in 1789, Martín had long since left Vienna to take up service in the court of Catherine the Great. In his place, Mozart was asked to compose two new arias for the work, as a sweetener to the soprano Louise Villeneuve who was to sing the initially rather minor role of Madama Lucilla. The two arias – “Chi se, chi se, qual sia” and “Vado, ma dove, o dei?” – are occasionally heard in recital. Figaro was also revived that year, but the two new arias Mozart composed for that are only very rarely heard. When Cecilia Bartoli let them loose on an unsuspecting New York public in 1998, neither audience nor director (a certain Dr Miller) was particularly amused.

The opera is in many ways a typical Goldoni farce, using amply fleshed-out stock characters to develop a scenario in which a grumpy, chess-obsessed curmudgeon is moved to restore romantic order to his lovesick niece and cash-strapped nephew (whose rather high-maintenance wife is the aforementioned Madama Lucilla). The staging, by Irina Brook, updates the setting to a rather ramshackle Venice hotel, with more than a hint of Fawlty Towers. This is a successful move for the comedy of marriage and money, but less so for the familiar theme of class (subtle servant–master relations drive several of the subplots). In terms of singing, while there were no weak points, the show was definitively stolen by Véronique Gens’s Lucilla, who looked and sounded like an unlikely catch for David Alegret’s Giocondo. Part of this, of course, is due to the way in which Mozart’s rather full-blooded insertions interact with Martín’s fleet-footed and delightfully melodious score, which like much of the Spaniard’s music, would certainly repay greater acquaintance – particularly when, as here, the guide is the great Jordi Savall, a conductor with whom open-mouthed amazement so often comes as standard.

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