It’s difficult to know what it was about Glyndebourne’s transfer of Michael Grandage’s new Le nozze di Figaro to the Royal Albert Hall that caused the first hour to struggle so much. Certainly, the cruel acoustic of the cavernous venue was not kind but, despite Ian Rutherford’s elaborate re-staging efforts, there were qualities inherent in the casting and original production that didn't help either.
There was little differentiation in the female voices (Sally Matthew’s radiant Countess, Lydia Teuscher’s delightful Susanna and the light and distinctly unmasculine mezzo of Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino) and there were problems with a flatness of characterisation, particularly Vito Priante’s stiff and unyielding Figaro. For all the refinement of Robin Ticciati’s conducting of the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a little vulgarity, not sufficiently provided by Audun Iversen’s uncouth Count, was needed to make the comedy ring.
And then there were difficulties with Grandage’s “concept”, such as it was. Setting the opera as either a 1970s sex comedy or in the less self-conscious swinging sixties (it wasn’t quite clear which) sat uneasily with the decorums and niceties of Mozart and da Ponte’s time, where a woman left alone in a room with a man was the height of indiscretion. The clash of sexual licence and buttoned-up morality (not to mention the feudal misogyny that drives the plot) was like a complex piece of jigsaw jammed into a gaping but unwelcoming hole. It could be argued that the moral freedom underlying 18th Century custom is what the work is all about but the Ray Cooney setting didn't provide a credible historical equivalent.
Much of the comedy, in keeping with the setting, was of an obvious kind – laughs raised with flowerpots on heads and windmilling arms as slaps land in unintended places, while radio-like sound effects stayed only just the right side of Carry On twangs and boings.
Yet there was a growing momentum which turned this misfitting evening into one of the most enjoyable Figaros seen in London for years. The now obligatory disco dancing that accompanies operatic party scenes wasn't needed to lift things once it got going. Music Director Designate Ticciati created moments of musical sublimity with the OAE’s lean and sparse sound and vocal delights such as Teuscher and Matthews’s “Canzonetta sull’aria” and the latter’s captivating “Dove sono.” Ann Murray’s Marcellina had a freshness that belied this artist’s years and experience and there was a lightness and grace throughout that swept through the work’s danger points (the beginning of Act 4 can be a real drag) with consummate ease.
It was a strange old mix that didn't quite add up to a thrilling whole but it zinged along without a dull moment and an abundance of Mozartian serenity. It wasn’t on quite the level of the Proms preceding opera offerings this season (the finest for years) but had plenty to keep a packed crowd entertained and transported.
- Simon Thomas