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Mozart Le nozze di Figaro
Guildhall School of Music & Drama
& Birmingham Conservatoire March 2007

 

Guildhall:
Conductor David Angus

Director John Fulljames

Designer Conor Murphy

Lighting Designer Charles Balfour

Choreographer Victoria Newlyn

 

Count Almaviva Nicholas Merryweather / Marc Scoffoni

Countess Almaviva Sophie Angebault / Katherine Broderick

Susanna Milda Smalakyte / Sarah Power

Figaro Philip Spendley / Benedict Nelson

Cherubino Tania Mandzy / Chloe De Backer

Marcelina Rebecca Raffell

Bartolo Philip Gerrard

Don Basilio Gareth Huw John / Bragi Bergthorsson

Don Curzio Bragi Bergthorsson / Gareth Huw John

Barbarina Daire Halpin



This newest of perhaps too many Figaros associated with yet another 'Mozart year', began at The Guildhall School with David Angus conducting a shaky lack-lustre overture, strings dominated by winds; half way through it the marital bedroom-to-be was invaded by the chorus. From then on the primacy of eyes over ears left Mozart all but forgotten through the first two Acts, given without respite or interval.

The farcical clevernesses imposed by John Fulljames* had been poorly assimilated by the hapless singers, of whom none, in the cast we saw, sounded at their probable best. Conor Murphy’s bizarre set, with perilous steps, progressively narrowing from left to right, posed problems for balance and safety, and the requirement to "do something" different and "funny" every five or ten seconds soon alienated us completely.

I have to echo Classical Source "- - overkill of distracting stage 'business' - - ultimately the evening's mixture of comedy and cruelty failed to ignite" and leave you with a less hostile report from Serena Fenwick, who saw both casts [Editor]:-

The curtain rose to reveal Conor Murphy's fixed set - a vast sloping construction, underpinned by a wedge of steps, narrowing from left to right. Nothing is quite horizontal or vertical, and it demanded some very neat footwork from the performers in a production crammed with complicated stage business.

 

John Fulljames Le Nozze di Figaro, which is set roughly in the present, is not so much about the marriage of Figaro and Susanna as it is about the failing marriage of the Count and Countess Almaviva. It is their increasingly straying affections, suspicions and jealousies that drive the plot, and images of their wedding day keep cropping up.

 

The two casts presented the Almavivas rather differently.

 

Nicholas Merryweather gave a vividly portrayed a slightly past his prime alpha-male, waistline expanding, hair a little too long and relying on bling to replace glamour. His Countess, Sophie Angebault, appeared to be declining and losing heart in a gentrified way [left]. His singing was excellent, her normally lovely and distinctive soprano sounded just a little pressurised at times.

 

The other couple appeared younger [R]; Katherine Broderick showing a fair spark of the mischief and resourcefulness of Rossini's Rosina, and Marc Scoffoni's Count beginning to tire of it all. Fine singing from them both Katherine Broderick in particular producing glittering tone with apparently effortless ease.

 

The remainder of the cast were treated almost as caricatures indeed the female chorus members were indistinguishable in identical wigs and glasses. Figaro was also spectacled, and serious with it in Philip Spendley's version, more comfortably in control (and firmer voiced) in Benedict Nelson's. Susanna could have passed for a waitress in a short black uniform and yes, there was a glimpse of a frilly apron, although she never got round to tying it on. Both Milda Smalakyte and Sarah Power were convincing, though each tended to force their voices at times.

 

Two good Cherubinos ( Tania Mandzy and Chloe De Backer) struggled hard to make plausible their costumes, which were even more outrageous than usual, at one moment a combination of pink frilly nightdress and camouflage fatigues well paired with a striped-stockinged Barbarina ( Daire Halpin) .

 

Marcelina was played in a jolly-hockeysticks style by Rebecca Raffell who introduced a splendidly plummy tone into her well rounded voice. Bartolo seemed to have stepped straight from a Marx Brothers film with Philip Gerrard executing a very neat act with hat and umbrella. Don Basilio and Don Curzio were shared between Gareth Huw John and Bragi Bergthorsson. Basilio's famous asses-skin aria was included and sung with bravado.

 

It all provoked a good deal of appreciative laughter from the audience.

 

Birmingham 9 March 2007

Conductor Lionel Friend

Director Michael Barry

Designer Colin Judges

Costumes - Ian Lander

Lighting Victoria Newlyn

 

Count Almaviva Rhydian Roberts

Countess Almaviva Katie Hockenhull

Susanna Louise Lloyd

Figaro Matthew Wright

Cherubino Frida Osterberg

Marcelina Fiona Sanderson

Bartolo Christopher Hill

Don Basilio Richard Jeffery

Don Curzio Mary Smyth

Barbarina Lucy Harvey

Antonio Frazer Scott

 

Birmingham Conservatoire's production was costumed for the 1920s, making the Count and Countess a few generations later than Mozart envisaged them, but Barry, Judges & Lander, laced them in an ancestral home which re-established links to the 18th century.

 

A very clever set , with rotating fixtures and a few drops, transformed a dust-sheeted anteroom into the Countess's sumptuous boudoir, the long gallery for the wedding feast, and a garden well furnished with statues and a gothic pavilion. Sunlight filtered gently through the tall windows, and the garden was bathed in moonlight.

 

Michael Barry's direction emphasised that each of the characters was part of a household with a clearly defined hierarchical structure, and every member of the cast acted their role convincingly. The comedy was treated lightly, and always prompted by words and music.

 

Musical standards were also high, with Lionel Friend drawing sprightly playing from the orchestra. A very full edition of the score was chosen, with both Marcelina's and Basilio's arias included.

 

Figaro (Matthew Wright) was very firm voiced , and Susanna (Louise Lloyds) winningly charming. Both Count and Countess exuded aristocratic dignity, Rhydian Roberts with a rock solid baritone, Katie Hockenhull singing despite a cold but showing a rich soprano of real promise. Frida Osterberg delighted in every bit of Cherubino's mischief, I retain a wonderful memory of her trying to crawl off stage unnoticed in Act 1 before the Count realised just how much conversation she has overheard.

 

Birmingham Conservatoire had double cast the whole production (I wish I had managed to see both) and still had 27 more singers to form the chorus. A most impressive showing, which on all counts completely eclipsed the production I had seen at GSMD only a week earlier.

 

Serena Fenwick


Photos Nobby Clark:
Nicholas Merryweather as Count Almaviva nd Sophie Angebault as Countess Almaviva;
Marc Scoffoni as Count Almaviva and Katherine Broderick as Countess Almaviva

 

See also Serena Fenwick on Figaro from Parisand Birmingham

and

John Fulljames - There's more to opera than music