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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Ukrainian cooking shakes off the old Soviet fur coat

Forget the stereotype: Ukranian cuisine is about more than just borscht, as a new cookbook shows.

“Potatoes,” Olia Hercules fumes. “Everyone thinks I’ve written a book about bloody potatoes.” It must be said that there is the odd spud in Mamushka (Mitchell Beazley), her surprisingly colourful celebration of Ukrainian food (after all, how could you have an eastern European cookbook without borscht?), but potatoes are far from the only thing to thrive in the country’s famously fertile black soil.

In fact, Hercules – young, slightly built and rarely seen without a slick of dangerously red lipstick – bears as much resemblance to the archetypal babushka as her homeland does to the bleak, grey landscape of the popular imagination. Born close to the Crimean border, she spent many holidays at the beach by the Sea of Azov, “the shallowest in the world”, where the kids ran around smothered in kefir to soothe their sunburn and everyone feasted on mountains of home-made apricot doughnuts.

Southern Ukraine, it turns out, is a land of plenty – during its long, hot summers anyway. There are prickly cucumbers picked straight from the vine, “aromatic and warm from the blistering sun”, sour cherries that “just drop off trees in the streets in June”, and the best watermelons you’ve ever tasted: “huge, firm, stripy beasts”, Hercules says.

What isn’t eaten straight from the garden will be preserved carefully to see the household through the region’s mild winters. The conserves include some rather intriguing fizzy fermented tomatoes that promise to blow your mind and your taste buds. In Ukraine, she says, “Tomatoes are king!” Fresh curd cheese and barbecued catfish, warm, flaky pumpkin bread and saffron-spiked rice all sound a blessedly long way from that old Soviet favourite, herring in a fur coat.

Nevertheless, this sunny childhood was still spent under the rule of Moscow, with its power cuts and queues, and Hercules retains to this day a nostalgic fondness for margarine, a legacy, she says, of the USSR’s “perpetual credit crunch”. A family favourite of slow-cooked goose brings back memories of bribes her surgeon uncle received to grease the creaking wheels of an ageing Soviet health system, while the home-made silky egg noodles underneath were a necessity, at a time when the local shop stocked only the occasional packet of grey macaroni.

The Soviet Union can also take some credit for the diversity of Hercules’s family, and hence the food on which she grew up. When you have a Siberian grandmother, aunts from Armenia, an Uzbek father and relatives in Azerbaijan, impossibly exotic asides such as “My grandmother picked this recipe up when she lived in Tashkent” just come naturally.

In answer to my geographic puzzling, Hercules snorts that “Ukraine basically is eastern Europe”, but the country’s culinary horizons stretch far further – there’s even a significant Korean population in the south, which, in the absence of Chinese cabbage for kimchi, has contributed a pickled carrot dish to her book.

For most of us, thanks to long memories for those tales of endless queues and dismal canteen cooking, the curtain is yet to rise on the culinary delights of the former Soviet bloc. The television producer Pat Llewellyn, the woman who discovered Jamie Oliver and was
food judge for the 2015 André Simon Awards, described it as “a much-underrated food culture” when praising the shortlisted Mamushka (the author’s childhood nickname for her mother, which has come to signify, she says, “strong women in general”).

It’s anyone’s guess whether that means we’ll get to see Hercules, resplendent in one of her signature knotted headscarves, showing off her Moldovan giant cheese twists on screen any time soon. But we’ll be seeing a lot more of her beloved “mamushka cooking”, one way or another. Just don’t mention the P word.

Next week: Richard Mabey on nature

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle