Royal Opera at Covent Garden
January 21 and 27, February 17 and 21
Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and Le nozze di Figaro
One would be hard pressed to imagine a less cycle-like traversal of the three Mozart-Da Ponte operas than this, even if the Royal Opera’s marketing machine did all it could to persuade us that it was more than just a handy excuse for staging three relatively cheap revivals. These were three very different productions by three very different directors, presided over by three very different conductors. And while one could argue that any contrived attempt to unite these three operas—hardly a ‘cycle’ at all—would have been no better, a single-director approach could have been greatly more interesting.
In fact, watching David McVicar’s Le nozze di Figaro, unveiled in 2006 and the newest of the productions, I idly wondered whether a cycle might not have grown out of its handsome sets—its updating to before the 1830 July Revolution allows for additional historical layers and takes advantage of that era’s elegant higher ceilings and stretched windows to fill out the Covent Garden stage. Certainly no such thought occurred while watching Francesca Zambello’s ugly, indecisive 2002 Don Giovanni, which focuses its action around an unattractive central block, before resorting to crass, noisy pyrotechnics for the dinner scene; or Jonathan Miller’s pallid, cynical Così fan tutte (now nearly two decades old and revived by Harry Fehr), which struggles anew with each revival to justify its ‘contemporary’ imprimatur, the simplicity of its coolly abstract sets now cluttered up by far too many iPhone gags. McVicar’s Figaro bustles with too much busy-ness, but it remains far more coherent and involving, despite the jarring effect one feels as it abandons scenic realism in Act 4.
Among the four casts—Don Giovanni had two—there were some fine performances. The singers’ work in the first Don Giovanni cast was largely undone, however, by Constantinos Carydis’s erratic conducting. On January 21 he raced through the overture and the first few numbers, dragging a reluctant cast with him, before slowing down for a plodding Catalogue Aria. Thereafter he studiously avoided any middle ground between these extremes, and even insisted on driving Gerald Finley’s Giovanni forward in the Serenade. Elsewhere, Finley’s singing was characteristically impeccable, smooth and musical, and, as directed by Duncan MacFarland, Lorenzo Regazzo’s garrulous Leporello served as an effective foil. There was an earnest, exceptionally well-sung Don Ottavio from Matthew Polenzani, and Hibla Gerzmava and Katarina Karnéus were impressive as Anna and Elvira, even if both risked coming unstuck in the demands of their Act 2 arias.
A month later on February 21 Christopher Willis, a member of the Royal Opera music staff, took over Cast-B conducting duties at the last minute, bringing a far more sensible, measured approach to much of the score. Things were less measured on the stage, however, and any discipline brought to this cast by a second revival director, Barbara Lluch, had dissolved by what was their third performance. Erwin Schrott’s Giovanni looked good and strutted with all the swagger one could want, but this performance seemed too often like a Leporello impersonating his master, both in its self-regarding, manufactured vocalism and its cocky, nudge-wink acting. Alex Esposito’s Leporello was too keen to match him by going overboard in his characterization, and the result was often chaotic. Carmela Remigio’s Donna Anna ignited the drama with her outbursts at ‘Fuggi, crudele’, but, despite impassioned performances of her arias, seemed reticent elsewhere. Ruxandra Donose’s Elvira was more consistently involving. Kate Lindsey was a charming but hardly girlish-sounding Zerlina. Matthew Rose did the business as Masetto, but it seemed a bit mean that he wasn’t offered Leporello this time round. Pavol Breslik was a fine Ottavio, who didn’t quite match Polenzani’s achievements in the first cast.
The conducting of the other two works was a great deal more satisfactory: Colin Davis’s Così was mellow, slow and soft-focused, but still effective in bringing out the score’s beauty; Antonio Pappano’s Figaro was alert to the drama, bristling with detail but reluctant ever to relax and let the music do the work. Thomas Allen’s Don Alfonso was still propping up Così, and was joined by the sassy, mezzo-tinted Malin Byström as Fiordiligi and Charles Castronovo’s robust Ferrando. Neither Michèle Losier (Dorabella) nor Nikolay Borchev (Guglielmo) was quite as memorable, but both sang and acted fluently.
Rosemary Joshua was a smart, subtle Despina. Pappano's cast was similarly pleasing and fluent, led by an appealing Figaro-Susanna pairing of Ildebrando D’Arcangelo and Aleksandra Kurzak. The Italian bass’s voice has ossified into something harder and darker than in previous appearances, it seems, but his remains a winning stage persona; Kurzak, meanwhile, was pert, perky and mischievous, and turned in a beautiful ‘Deh vieni’. Anna Bonitatibus’s light, fluttery mezzo worked well for Cherubino, and Rachel Willis-Sørensen brought strength and nobility of tone to the Countess, even if she struggled to find her feet dramatically speaking. As her husband, Lucas Meachem took over at short notice from Simon Keenlyside, and, although physically imposing, lacked the edge and power in the voice to communicate the character’s anger—which, in this production, especially as revived by Leah Hausman, often spills into violence. Carlo Lepore was a likeable, easy-going Bartolo who provided a fine counterweight to Ann Murray’s comically overwrought Marcellina. The other smaller roles were well taken in what was the pick of a mainly decent, but only intermittently inspiring cycle.