The Royal Opera has revived David McVicar’s production of Le Nozze di Figaro after only five months, but already with a ‘revival director’, Stéphane Marlot, who has modified a fair number of details, but not, unfortunately, the over-busyness of some of it, including the Overture, during which we see huge numbers of servants bustling and indulging in very McVicarish horseplay.
However, since Colin Davis is conducting, the obvious thing is to close your eyes for four minutes and hear that hyper-familiar piece delivered with incomparable verve and an underlying threat of insurrection. It is wonderful how, throughout, Davis illuminates the opera without any nudging, gear-changing, strange emphases. He has reached, anyway in Mozart, a plateau where he releases the music and makes one temporarily relapse into the nonsense of thinking that one is hearing the score without intervention from an interpreter. He has an almost uniformly first-rate cast, largely different from and in key roles superior to the first cast.
Above all, thanks to the singing if not quite so much to the acting of Soile Isokoski, the Countess takes her place at the serene and troubled centre of the work. She is admirable in ensemble, especially in the opera’s closing minutes, but it is her two arias that one is unlikely ever to hear sung as beautifully on the stage as they are here. The Count of Michael Volle is less commanding, though not seriously; his great explosion of possessiveness and rage in Act III lacked bite, a little, though if I have a criticism of Davis it is that his reading is occasionally soft-grained. Anyway, it was one of those performances where with (almost) everything being steered so well, individual singers mattered less than they do when the conducting is unsatisfactory; or one takes less notice of their finer points.
I was very taken with the Figaro of Kyle Ketelsen, slightly but only slightly coarse, which is appropriate, clearly from a different class from the Count. Isabel Bayrakdarian took some time to reveal Susanna’s charm and magnetism as well as her shrewdness, but was wholly inside the role by Act II, and sung a deliciously sensual ‘Deh vieni’. Sophie Koch sang Cherubino; Rinat Shaham in January set an almost impossibly high standard, but if Koch is less convincing in appearance and movement, it is not by much, and she was uniquely ravishing in ‘Voi che sapete’. It is such a serious mistake to cast Basilio as a camp young queen that John Graham-Hall had uphill work to make anything dramatically of a usually enormously rewarding role. Nothing Davis did was more intelligent and sensitive than omitting Marcellina’s and Basilio’s Act IV arias, despite the excellence of Diana Montague and Hall in the respective roles. This was an evening of intense musical drama, fulfilling in the way that this opera alone can be.
Three evenings later we had the second cast of Tosca in Jonathan Kent’s new production. Though the estimated timings for each act were slightly shorter than for the opening night, it still felt like a much longer evening than Tosca should. It seems as if Antonio Pappano, when he arrives at a phrase or even a chord which he loves, just can’t bear to move on, with fearful stagnation the result. Act II, which should be a terrifying vortex in which the characters are sucked down, starts and stops so often under Pappano that I became less incredulous of the woman across the aisle from me who read a book imperturbably throughout the whole act. The climaxes, when they arrive, seem to come from nowhere, while Puccini is actually a master of the long slow build-up.
The less starry cast was slightly more satisfactory, all told, than the first. It isn’t cussedness which makes me pick out the Spoletta of Gregory Bonfatti, punctilious, diligent, hateful in his delight in doing his revolting duty: his insight into his role dwarfed the major players. Samuel Ramey returned as Scarpia, and, though his voice is not as glorious as it once was, it is still impressive, and he is a master at displaying its strengths. And he has certainly made his interpretation more rounded. He is a master of suavity, where Bryn Terfel is a merciless bully. Ramey intoxicates himself with his own lustfulness, so that his solos may be more impressive than his interaction with the slightly impassive Tosca of Catherine Naglestad. Like Gheorghiu, whose underplaying of the role has been universally commented on, Naglestad sang her Act I duet with Cavaradossi surprisingly quietly. She opened up later, and had some fairly powerful dramatic moments, though I doubt whether she will become a major interpreter of the role. The Cavaradossi of Nicola Rossi Giordano is attractive, both to look at and to hear, though he doesn’t communicate any sense of dedication to a cause, and his defiance of Scarpia is tame. But that is the word for the evening as a whole, the last thing that a performance of Tosca can afford to be.