Sunday, July 8, 2012
MARRIAGE OF FIGARO IN A LAW OFFICE AT AIX-EN-PROVENCE FESTIVAL
Reviewed by James Karas
The Aix-en-Provence Festival’s 64th season offers an eclectic selection of operas as well as a number of concerts to make that beautiful medieval city a cultural centre second to none. The Festival runs from July 5 to 27, 2012.
This year’s opener was Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro with Le Cercle de l’Harmonie Orchestra conducted by Jérémie Rhorer in a production directed by Richard Brunel. Now we all know that The Marriage of Figaro takes place in the castle or at least the grand residence of Count Almaviva. Men of rank wear wigs, women wear beautiful gowns and their world is very different from ours.
Directors have rightly taken different approaches to the opera from traditional 18th century settings to having the action take place in the Trump Tower in New York City. Brunel for this production has veered towards a modern view of the opera with some interesting results.
He places the opera in the offices of a modern law office. There is a receptionist, filing rooms, banker’s boxes, staff milling around and all the paraphernalia of a very ordinary office environment. Count Alamviva is the “boss” of this office and his apartment is attached to his place of work. The Count’s law practice requires much more staff than Mozart and his librettist Lorenzo da Ponte provided so Brunel just throws them in, some in legal gowns.
Some of the office workers seem to buy their clothes from the Salvation Army while others are a notch above that dress code.
In the famous opening scene, Figaro is happily measuring his bedroom in anticipation of marrying the lovely Susanna. In this production, his bedroom is somewhere in the law offices of the Count’s and all he and Susanna get is a convertible couch that is unceremoniously dropped in the office. It is not stated, but it seemed to me that the wily Figaro is a law clerk rather than the Count’s valet.
Almaviva in this production is a hands-on lawyer who comes in and out of his office and a very jealous husband who wants to seduce Suzanna, his wife’s maid. The aristocratic Count of Mozart’s opera is indeed jealous and suspicious but he is not without authority and some dignity. By the end of the opera he makes a fool of himself but he shows nobility in his repentance.
In this production, Almaviva (played by baritone Paulo Szot) is a horny employer who under normal circumstances would be before the Discipline Committee of the Law Society if not in front of a judge for sexual harassment. By placing the opera in a law office, Brunel reduces the stature of the Count as well.
This is highly unfortunate and a waste of the talent of Szot. He has a marvelous voice and physical presence. He is well suited for the role and given the chance could inspire respect and develop as I believe the character is intended to be.
The Countess is a woman of beauty and elegance who is spurned by her husband. We see her in her chamber where she sings the gorgeous arias “Porgi Amor” and “Dove Sono”. In this production not only does she does not have an elegant chamber but seems to live in a sewing room with several workers. Her dress is at best ordinary. Soprano Malin Byström has a velvet voice and she sings the countess’s arias with sustained beauty and emotion but there is something missing.
When the countess sings “Porgi Amor” in the sewing room, there are workers present (she is supposed to be lamenting the loss of love alone) and, worse, she sings “Dove sono” in a room full of chairs where the Count and several other characters are present.
What is missing in her arias and in the whole production is a connection to who the characters are, where they belong and where Brunel puts them. There is a disconnect or a divide between what these people say they are and what they are supposed to be in this production.
American bass-baritone Kyle Ketelsen has a fine voice and sings a good Figaro. He wears a three-piece suit and does some office work for the Count. He is acceptable as a character in the circumstances but he is certainly not allowed to be the free-wheeling spirit that Figaro represents. Three-piece suit, indeed.
Soprano Patricia Petibon has a sweet voice and did a fine job as Susanna if you only listened to her. She was dressed in an ugly sweater and skirt and her shock of red hair was gathered in a bun on the top of her head. In short, she looked like the cleaning lady and why the boss would pursue her is a question to be asked.
Mezzo-soprano Kate Lindsey made a very nimble, almost farcical, Cherubino. He/she is stripped down to her underwear but the slightly-built singer performed with fervor and vocal agility.
Bass Mario Luperi was Bartolo and he delivered “La Vendetta,” his great aria, with more histrionics and punctuation than it was necessary. The aria requires passion and conviction but in the end it also requires control and coldness. Vengeance is best delivered cold and Luperi should have been told to tone it down.
The final scene in the garden brought everything to a crashing end. Brunel allowed other characters to enter and exit – they had no business being there. Parts of the revolving stage walls and doors were pushed around and the effect was numbing.
There are numerous small and larger complaints in a misconceived production that good singing could not rescue.
Conductor Rhorer started a bit slowly with the overture but picked up momentum and carried the orchestra superbly.
The Marriage of Figaro by W. A. Mozart opened on July 5 and will be performed on various dates until July 27, 2012 at the Théâtre de l'Archevêché, Aix-en-Provence, France. http://festival-aix.com/