Last night at the opera, 2015

On Saturday  to Opera Australia’s Marriage of Figaro.

Driving in I was treated to a particularly splendid version of the view at the head of this blog though from a later moment when the sunset has lost its red. The westward facing fronts of the city skyline caught the remaining light of the western sky and gleamed against a slate blue eastern sky in which the full moon was rising.

My neighbour was a man I have sat next to before on the odd occasion when I have been to a first night. He is always keen to tell me that he is a regular first-nighter, always sitting in his particular seat in the front row. On Saturday he also told me:

  • He had done the leaving in 1939 but had not done maths honours, which was the course that had calculus;
  • He was now remedying that by doing HSC maths – at present the 3 unit course;
  • He had worked as a ship’s doctor, including on Russian ships;
  • He had seen operas in all the great opera houses of Europe;
  • He returned to Sydney in 1968 [or maybe it was 1967] and had been going to the first night ever since;
  • He married when he was 63 – I took it he was now widowed;
  • Once, when Faust was on at the Tivoli, a fat tenor could not fit in the trap door down to hell.  A wit from the gods’ (a term he helpfully explained to me as the second circle) called out “So hell’s full then!;”
  • He had missed the first half of the first night of this production because he had to go to his HSC maths class;
  • He was now 92.

I very much enjoyed the performance.  Some of the more well, not  necessarily wayward (because that implies wrong) but dragged about tempi seemed to have moderated from the first time I went.  The part when Susanna emerges from the cupboard, however, was waywardly fast.  It is marked “Molto andante” or “Andante di molto” in the score:

Figaro Susanna emerges

Even if that Andante referred to bars rather than beats in the bar, you could scarcely say it was observed.  This is meant to be a moment of jaw-dropping surprise.  The Countess was facing the count so her “Susanna” became a “Susanna?” addressed to him and the Count then nudged her to turn around and see who it was (she was expecting Cherubino).  Apart from the  “?” which is not in the libretto (possibly not a determining point – I don’t know da Ponte’s punctuation practices), I don’t think relations between them are sufficiently civil for that gesture to be credible and indeed one of McVicar’s points going on from that is the Countess’s continued refusal to keep up appearances of civility with her husband.

While we’re on the stage direction, McVicar (as in previous productions by him) depicts an erotic tension between Bartolo and Marcellina from the start.  They finish the Vendetta aria sitting on Figaro & Susanna’s bed and just can’t help themselves.  This gives a good laugh but I think it steals the thunder of the later revelation that they are in fact Figaro’s parents and is inconsistent with his line that as an act or revenge against Figaro for depriving him of his former ward Rosina he would be happy to marry his old housekeeper, Marcellina, off to Figaro. It is the discovery that Figaro is the stolen (he likes to think stolen: still quite possibly abandoned in my opinion) Rafaello that rekindles Bartolo and Marcellina’s relationship.

According to McVicar, Cherubino does not actually want to marry Barbarina.  That may be so and together with the exchanged glances with the countess at the finale ties in with Cherubino’s subsequent one night stand with the Countess  according to Beuamarchais’ sequel, La Mère coupable  But why does McVicar depict Barbarina’s father Antonio as against the match?  It is surely a good one for her.

There are lots of details in the direction which I picked up the second time.  I liked that it is Don Curzio’s assistant who first laughs out aloud when it emerges that Marcellina is Figaro’s mother. He of course will straight away have realised that she cannot marry Figaro.

I can see that the last act is a difficult at to pull off.  So many irons are in the fire and they all need to be extracted. In my first post on this production I commented on the absence of pine trees.  That is not quite correct: there are pine branches overhanding the patio-like stage area and between them a moon appears.  The problem I think is a lack of pine trunks or of something to hide behind and of a suitable focal point of garden furniture.  There is a chair for Susanna and the Countess to sit on (this is important because it ostensibly serves to assist the disguise: Nicole Car is tall and Taryn Fiebig is short) but otherwise there is an enormous space (or seemingly enormous, which is a wonder: this is the SOH stage!) that people seem to drift around in.

The other gap in the last act is the missing arias of Marcellina and Basilio.  It is said they don’t advance the plot but for that matter neither do the Count’s and Countess’s in Act III.  In this production, which emphasises the class conflict aspect, Basilio’s aria at least could profitably be restored.

I appreciated Nicole Car as the countess more the second time around, though I still wished she had more to give at the end of Dove sono and at the very end of the opera when she emerges to forgive the Count.  Taryn Fiebig had a bit of a frog in her throat for her big aria but that didn’t prevent it from being a magical moment.

Richard Anderson (Bartolo) and Graeme Macfarlane (Don Curzio, the judge) are both good singers in their metier but I feel both were miscast in this opera.

Where I noticed it for Anderson was in the patter-like triplet section in his Vendetta aria: this point for me requires a big/fat voice which can nevertheless energise the multiple syllables -it’s a comical figure for his rage.  Anderson doesn’t have that kind of voice or mode of singing.

Macfarlane kept about two of the Michael-Kelly-introduced stammers (near the beginning) and after that was directed by McVicar as being chronically exasperated/enraged. I prefer the performing tradition of Curzio as a querulous and pedantic lawyer rather than a cranky one.  It is true that the enraged stylisation matched the way Macfarlane sang his big figure at the end of Act III  (fifth stave from the bottom):

Don Curzio's bit

I expect he sang it pretty much the way he has to sing it.

If the season were longer there would be more scope for fitting singers to their best suited roles.

Anything Goes, starting next Saturday, makes up the remainder of this year’s Sydney season.

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