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.

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

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear