Michael Tanner

Marriage minefield

Marriage minefield
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Le Nozze di Figaro|Dr Dee

Glyndebourne|English National Opera, Until 22 August|

There are two places in Le Nozze di Figaro where the music undergoes a brief but potent change, which indicates how much deeper the undercurrents are than the busy actions we are witnessing. If either of these is short-changed or mismanaged, the whole work is rendered less moving and serious than it really is. The first and less conspicuous is in the finale to Act II, when the Count is trying to trap Figaro about the letter of assignation. The Count says he can tell from Figaro’s face that he is lying, and Figaro replies that in that case his face is the liar. The music to which he sings that disappears briefly, but then reappears as a kind of prayer or hymn to which Susanna and Figaro, with the support of the Countess, ask the Count to bless their marriage. There is a solemnity about their music unlike anything we have previously encountered, underpinned by a sustained low note on the double basses.

The second place, this one unmissable, is in the finale to Act IV, when Figaro, briefly alone, reflects that ‘Tutto è tranquillo e placido’, which is quite untrue, and goes on to draw elaborate classical parallels with his situation. This passage is only 12 bars long, but has an accompaniment worthy of the great Wind Serenade K.361, and in a way is utterly at odds with anything else in the opera. Yet it prepares the ground for the radiance of the final scene, in which the Count begs for forgiveness from the Countess, and she grants it, then everyone joins in.

In the new production at Glyndebourne directed by Michael Grandage, and with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment conducted by Robin Ticciati, the first of these passages goes unnoticed on the stage, since Grandage seems bent only on frothy merriment. The production begins badly, the curtain up, always a bad sign, and people going about their business in Moorish Spain, until a flashy sports car comes on and inevitably elicits what I think of as the Glyndebourne Guffaw. The period seems to be the early 1970s, to judge from most of the costumes, that is the closing years of Franco’s dictatorship. But having put it there, Grandage does nothing at all with it — that action or the car. The action might just as well have been put back to where it originally was, and then many of the lines of Da Ponte’s brilliant dialogue, and much of the action, would stop being nonsensical.

The conducting is memorable, though I wish that Ticciati had been conducting the LPO rather than the OAE, for it sounded weedy and underpowered. But Ticciati manages a combination of springy rhythms and sinuous melodic lines that is just what Figaro needs, and it’s a pity his cast weren’t more uniformly satisfactory. The greatest source of pleasure is Sally Matthews’s Countess, a portrayal of extraordinary completeness. She sings with divine purity of tone, but not a note was less than expressive; and her acting is restrained but enforces concentration.

The Susanna of Lydia Teuscher is not in that class, but she avoids pertness, and she charms. The major weak spot is the Count of Audun Iversen, virtually a lout, and with no sexual charisma; that means that the plausible Figaro of Vito Priante appears more aristocratic than his master, but Grandage’s production of them completely fails to register the intensity of their mutual hatred anyway. Iversen’s vocal production is pretty coarse, too. Isabel Leonard’s Cherubino could be much more sexy than it is, if only

s/he would stop beaming with self-satisfaction almost the whole time. Her looks are excitingly androgynous, and her voice is dark and alluring. Ann Murray and Andrew Shore are an almost ideal pair of oldsters, and the subsidiary characters are all cast from strength.

Until the interval, it seemed that Grandage was encouraging their all playing for laughs, of which actually there were few. Things improved in Act III, and for once the confusions of the close of that act were helpfully sorted out by careful positioning of the characters. The lush atmosphere of the final act, with Marcellina’s and Basilio’s arias mercifully cut, intensified the anxieties and the release that makes Figaro a work almost without equals.

Dr Dee, ENO’s latest excursion into music theatre, is not something to waste many words on. The first thing is that it is extremely badly amplified, and without surtitles, a strange decision, and one which meant I had no idea whatever what anyone was saying for 98 per cent of the time. For the first ten minutes or so characters walk along a wall and then fall backwards off it, which is reasonably entertaining, though there is no indication of who they are or why they are doing it. One of the co-creators, Damon Albarn, sits aloft behind the action and vocalises. The musical idiom is so eclectic as to be just styleless. There are non-stop projections, many of them of a mathematical kind. But really ENO should stop putting on such undiluted rubbish.