A tale of two Mozarts…

Figaro on Friday, Giovanni on Saturday. I’m a wee bit Mozart’d out…

Both productions, the Figaro by David McVicar and the Don Giovanni by Francesca Zambello, have been doing the ROH rounds for a while now, and seeing them in such close succession was definitely unfavourable towards the Don Giovanni. The details, the cool elegance and poise of the setting of Figaro showed up all of the deficiencies in the static, rootless, vague Giovanni.  In fact, having been fairly agnostic on the point before, I now came out of the latter opera convinced this slightly clumsy production was ready for replacement.

Both operas were strongly cast, though not with singers that everyone will be completely familiar with, and this led to some pleasant surprises. Chief amongst them (for me) were the Countess Almaviva of Rachel Willis-Sørensen and the Donna Anna of Carmela Remigio. Willis-Søresen’s voice was heavier than is customarily heard in this, at first, gentle-seeming role, but it was all the better to support a bold characterisation, playful and intimate with Cherubino in the high-jinks of Act 2, painfully despairing elsewhere. Here was a Countess that could readily be related back to the passionate Rosina of Il Barbiere di Siviglia. Meanwhile, Donna Anna sometimes seems to be a Mozartian stepping-stone to heavier roles, but Remigio brought a bright but delicate sound to the part that integrated it more effectively into the surrounding drama. Her conclusion to Non mi dir was very touching, with some fabulous, bright coloratura; her Or sai chi l’onore lacked for nothing in terms of fire and spirit.

As I said, though both casts were strong indeed. As the Count, Lucas Meachem was a convincing character, with a hefty measure of danger, but he was also just a shade too small of voice to quite follow through. Alongside him Ildebrando d’Arcangelo jumped off the stage both vocally and histrionically. He was amply partnered by the bright, volatile Susanna of Aleksandra Kurzak, quite enchanting to watch. Anna Bonitatibus was absolutely wonderful as Cherubino, a gorgeous voice, sensitively deployed, managing to actually make Voi che sapete an interesting aria, scaled back to an arresting intimacy. Smaller characters were all well taken, including Bonaventura Bottone camping it up as Don Basilio, Ann Murray (ditto) as Marcellina and Carlo Lepore as Bartolo. Jette Parker Young Artist Susana Gaspar delivered Barbarina’s Act 4 opener beautifully.

Over in Don G territory, of course the big name draw was Erwin Schrott, whose Giovanni is a thing of danger, swagger, genuine (for once) sex, and just a touch of cheeky camp. Aided and abetted by an indefatigable Alex Esposito as Leporello, Schrott owns the stage, and between them they took every opportunity for a bit of business, including many grunts, asides, double-takes and other such devices to lift the mood (including coming off stage to romance a lucky lady in row A of the Side Stalls Circle). I’ve noted before the extent to which this hyperactivity, whilst undoubtedly impressive in its confidence, is skirting danger as it risks distorting the ensemble. Nonetheless, it is probably only because he has such a fantastic voice that he can get away with it: a voice which he deploys both sensitively and with thrilling virility depending on the need that arises.  Dogging his heels was a rich-voiced Ruxandra Donose as Donna Elvira, most touching in Mi tradì. Kate Lindsey and Matthew Rose were the couple attempting, despite Giovanni’s best efforts, to marry, and both sang with character and beauty. Pavol Breslik deployed an attractive, secure tone, and achieved a lovely stillness, in both of Don Ottavio’s arias. The Commendatore of Reinhard Hagen could have done with a bit more bone-rattling heft.

Comparisons between the conducting risks becoming invidious. The sure pace and consistent dramatic thrust of Pappano’s Figaro was far from replicated in the Giovanni reading of Constantinos Carydis. Initially setting off at a cracking pace for the overture, the brisk reading continued up to Leporello’s Catalogue Aria, which seemed to grind down to a steady tread, to the point I began to wonder if more countries had been added to the library of Giovanni’s conquests. Such tension between pacing continued throughout the night, which robbed the sensitive moments of their power because they simply began to drag. By way of contrast, Pappano achieved a fantastic overall structure, and the thrillingly continuous long span of Act 2 had a fabulous momentum.

The final observation is the audience: both were unacceptably noisy, with relatively little effort to control coughing (particularly the portly woman behind us at Figaro who projected her coughs over our heads and out into the Auditorium). A kerfuffle broke out further along our (Lower Slips) row in Don Giovanni – well-timed to coincide with, of all moments, the closing passages of Dalla sua pace. Riotous applause (mystifyingly) broke out at the end of the descent to hell scene in Don Giovanni (it’s not that impressive, for heaven’s sake) and overran the start of the concluding chorale. More troublingly, for me, the audience at Figaro were so eager to laugh that a notable number seemed to fail to pick up on the chilling darkness in parts of Act 2, as the mood turns and the Countess is threatened, with some violence, and dismissed by her jealous husband, and again in Act 4 when the mood of the music changes so dramatically as the Count asks his wife for forgiveness. I know it’s easy to dismiss the rapid humbling of the Count at that moment (“oh! it’s opera! That’s how things go…”) but the music says so much more. Heigh ho! The magic of live theatre, I guess…

Postscript: the best ‘overheard’ comment as we left at the end of Don Giovanni: “…but I just don’t see why he had to have his shirt off at the end…” I was tempted to respond: Because he can, dear. Because he can.

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