Review: Le Nozze di Figaro

Michael Grandage's Figaro settles into drawing-room farce

Le nozze di Figaro is an Italian opera, composed by a German and adapted from a French play, all of which make it easy to forget the work’s original Spanish setting. But the elaborate Moorish sets for Michael Grandage’s new Glyndebourne production put Spain firmly to the fore, casting aside the 18th century in favour of lusty goings-on in a 1960s country villa, somewhere outside Seville.

Transposing the action of Figaro to Franco’s Spain is not a new idea. Ian Judge’s 2004 treatment for LA Opera also explored this period, identifying the natural parallels between the social and political tensions of the dictator’s boom years and those leading up to the French Revolution. With change just beyond the neatly-trimmed hedges bordering the Almaviva estate, wealth and excess celebrate an uneasy victory in the outmoded rites of the privileged classes.

As the Overture struts to a poised close and Count and Countess pull up in their open-top sports car (a scene-stealing antidote to the many animals on the opera stage in London recently) it becomes clear that music and drama aren’t entirely in sympathy here. While Robin Ticciati and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment offer a determinedly understated reading (the climaxes of the Overture are rarely outdone by the pianissimos), Christopher Oram’s sets are a constant forte in their excess – all Alhambra arches and intricate mosaic tiles. Both however manage to drown out the dramatic intrigue on stage.

Grandage seems determined to reject the sitcom-style operatic comedy currently in vogue, opting instead for a delicate naturalism whose gestures seem barely to reach beyond the orchestra pit. The resulting comedy is hard-won (blunted often by brutally truncated and inexact subtitles), never quite achieving the flow that Mozart’s score demands, and having knock-on impact for some too-heavy recitatives. It’s no disaster, but given this cast, conductor and visual context we could so easily have had so much more.

Characterisation succeeds best in the smaller roles, investing Isabel Leonard’s gorgeously-sung Cherubino with gangling awkwardness, and transforming Don Basilio (Alan Oke) into a prancing poseur. The romance between Andrew Shore’s Bartolo (the dramatic high-point of the evening) and Ann Murray’s Marcellina is also a delight.

Despite the riotous décor and the screaming Pucci-print of her own outfits, Sally Matthews’s Countess achieves the sudden stillness the role requires, shocking us out of the glossy strife of Susanna and Figaro with both “Porgi amor” and “Dove sono” and into the altogether more terminal convulsions of her marriage.

Thanks to the some rather under-projected performances from Vito Priante’s Figaro and Audun Iversen as the Count (the latter all but benign, so smiling is his seduction), greater than usual emphasis falls upon the scheming women – weight that both Matthews and Lydia Teuscher (Susanna) manage to bear. Teuscher’s neat vocal delivery is at its best in the first two acts, relishing the playful intrigue but never quite following through with the darker emotions of Act Four.

There’s a ferocity, a feral energy to Figaro that kicks against the bourgeois conventions of its setting. Here, in the grounds of an English country house, Mozart’s own estate struggles to locate this, settling too easily instead into a gentle drawing-room farce. Having set up a historical context of such resonance and specificity, Grandage fails to follow through and engage with it, leaving his characters unmoored and floating somewhere between their eighteenth century originals and his liberated sixties incarnations.

Le nozze di Figaro is an opera with a special history for Glyndebourne – having opened the festival back in 1934 and received some 500 performances in the intervening years. With 12 years since Graham Vick’s production, all eyes (and ears) were on Grandage and Ticciati to deliver a reading for a new generation. While theirs could still be the production we’ve been waiting for, as yet it isn’t quite.

Michael Grandage's production of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro will run at the Glyndebourne Festival until Wednesday 22 August 2012. 

 

Susanna (Lydia Teuscher) and Figaro (Vito Priante) in Le nozze di Figaro. Photo: Alastair Muir.

Alexandra Coghlan is the New Statesman's classical music critic.

This article first appeared in the 02 July 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Clegg the martyr

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Sex and the city: the novel that listens in on New York

Linda Rosenkrantz's Talk captures the conversations of a sex-obsessed city.

Especially for New Yorkers such as the ones in Linda Rosenkrantz’s novel Talk, summertime is both maddening and delicious: it’s a limbo during which no serious work is possible, because some crucial decision-maker at the top of the chain is inevitably out of town, so even the most ambitious strivers must find a way to fill their days with something other than striving. It’s a time to take stock of what has happened and speculate about the future – that comfortably abstract time that starts the day after Labor Day and is as blank as the opening page of a new notebook on the first day of school. Meanwhile, because little can be done, there is nothing to do but dissect, analyse, explain, confide, complain, chat and kibitz. Talk is a book that more than lives up to its name.

Realising that the lazy conversations that fill up the days during this liminal time might be revealing, Linda Rosenkrantz took her tape recorder to East Hampton, New York, in the summer of 1965. She spent more than a year transcribing the tapes, leaving her with 1,500 pages of text featuring 25 different speakers, which she then whittled down to 250 pages and three characters. The result is a slim novel told in conversations – though Rosenkrantz has said that it was her publisher, “wary of possible legal ramifications”, who insisted on presenting it as fiction.

Emily Benson, a party girl and sometime actress, spends her weekends lying on the beach with Marsha, a working girl who has rented a house there for the season. Often they are joined by their friend Vincent, a painter who is almost as boy-crazy as they are; despite this, he and Marsha share a love that verges on the erotic but never quite manages it. All are around thirty and are single, though none really wants to be.

They pay lip-service to literary and political concerns, listing authors, musicians and political figures such as Kennedy, Castro, Mailer and Roth, but mostly their talk is about sex (they would rather sleep with Mailer than Roth and Castro than Kennedy). Sex acts and their consequences are anatomised in detail, with orgies and abortions brought up as casually as the recipe for salad dressing. Emily is infatuated with a married man named Michael Christy – they always refer to him by his first and last names. Marsha has a few casual involvements but none seems likely to take the place of Vincent, especially as he not only talks to her endlessly but sometimes, after a few glasses of wine, playfully asks to see her vagina or breasts. To the extent that the novel has a plot, it’s a love story but not about Michael Christy or any of the other men who merit recurring mentions. The three friends comprise a love triangle that even they, with their self-consciously avant-garde attitudes, don’t seem to recognise for what it is.

It takes a few pages to get used to the oddness of reading a novel in dialogue form and to stop being annoyed by the characters’ oh-so-Sixties affectations. Everything is “far out” and the word “scene” is deployed with alarming frequency – at one point, Emily memorably dismisses a menu suggestion by declaring that she doesn’t want to “get into a whole home-made pie-making scene”.

It is harder to get past the characters’ attitudes to race. An early chapter shows them being very impressed that Marsha has a “Negro” analyst (although, Marsha says in a casually appalling aside, “You don’t think of him, say, if you want to invite a Negro to a party”).

But these are unvarnished slices of chatty vérité: this was how arty thirtysomething New Yorkers in 1965 talked and thought about their lives. A television show set in 1965 might be criticised for being too on the nose if it reproduced, say, Emily’s rhapsodies about her LSD experience. “I was intimately a part of every pulsebeat of every sun that came up on everybody’s life,” she tells Vincent, and goes on to cite Salinger. These conversations actually happened. And luckily, at the moment when that alone ceases to be enough to sustain the reader’s interest, the characters begin to reveal enough about themselves to become interesting as more than a page of history.

Marsha, it turns out, is very funny and winningly down-to-earth. Emily and Vincent are much too impressed with their own promiscuity and sexual appetites; they relish listing their conquests and describing sex acts in a way that, in 2015, might seem uncool even among 14-year-olds. Marsha’s sex talk, however, is frank and hilarious. In one of her wittiest moments, she describes a liaison that left her with welts on her back and the ruse she then employed to explain them away when her mother came over from Westchester the next day to help her try on bathing suits. Indeed, the guy seems to have been worth the welts: “The time I passed out, we wound up in the shower together and it was very, very wild ecstatic lovemaking, one of the great moments of my life. Except I was worried about my hair getting wet.” Marsha has the best lines in the book. While the friends are debating whether to go to a party, she deploys her finest: “I don’t want to talk to people I don’t know. I can hardly talk to the people I do know.”

As we grow more attached to Marsha, Emily seems increasingly irritating in comparison. But I’m sure if you transcribed the dialogue of many charismatic people they would seem as tiresome and self-involved as Emily does – and we know she must be charming because of how excited Vincent and Marsha are about being around her and how much they miss her when she skips a weekend or two. Still, she’s a bit much. At one point, while discussing their sexual preferences on the beach (again), she cuts Marsha off mid-sentence, saying: “I haven’t quite finished with me.” She never does.

Marsha is also interested in herself but in her case the interest seems merited. Towards the end of the novel, we learn that she has been spending the summer writing a book. Could it be the one we are holding? In the final chapter, as the two women unpack from the summer, Marsha reports telling her therapist about “what a horrible person I emerged as on the tapes and how all the three of us talk about is sex and food and yet how I felt we were the only people who communicate in the whole world”. It may be that the book has doubled back on itself to become about its own composition or that Rosenkrantz is Marsha (she has recently admitted that “one of these three taped ‘characters’ is moi”.)

In this light, the book stands as an early entrant in a field that is now in full flower: works by women who use their lives and personae as raw material for their art, such as Chris Kraus’s influential 1997 novel, I Love Dick, and Sheila Heti’s How Should a Person Be? (2010). Stephen Koch points out in his fine introduction that Talk also paved the way for TV shows such as Girls and Broad City, in which fiction is grounded in the creators’ real-life personae.

Unlike those ongoing sagas, Talk is ­finite: autumn came and the experiment was over. Did Michael Christy ever leave his wife for Emily? Did Marsha finally let go of Vincent enough to make space for a heterosexual man in her life? A lot of plans were made that summer but we will never know whether all they amounted to was talk.

Emily Gould’s novel “Friendship” is published by Virago

Talk is out now from NYRB Classics (£8.99)

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism