Mozart, Marriage of Figaro – Opera Australia

September 25, 2010

When I first saw this production a few years ago, I failed to understand it. Miserably. Everything seemed to be played for laughs and the audience responded inappropriately at the most poignant moments – the humour seemed cruel and misplaced, serious arias struck down by laughter, anachronisms coming across as undermining and tawdry. Though I did find the Velasquez/Goya/Rembrandt decor absorbing. Confusion and delay, as the Fat Controller would say, set in big time.

That production allowed to me to continue to set this and similar (influenced also by the Sellars Cosi, for example) apart from the ‘great’ Magic Flute and the Don, for which I have all the time in the world. I was brought around rather more by the recent Cosi, with its brilliant costuming for Henry Choo and Shane Lowrencev, for example – both of whom I find electrifying. Later, I came upon the Netrebko/Harnoncourt on SBS TV, my constant source of new operatic repertoire, and immediately identified with the black-and-white Strindberg decor, the strange doppelganger angel and of course the mesmerising Ildebrando D’Arcangelo, Anna Netrebko et al. Order was restored, Figaro maintaining its third position at my Mozart starting line. Whenever I need a dose of fine singing and absorbing choreography/set design, I draw on an Act or two from the Deutsche Grammophon DVD.

Having witnessed Figaro on Wednesday night, and thinking of nothing else since – life is always a blur for a few days and nights after going to OA performances -, I read in this weekend’s newspaper yet another attack on opera in this country, while every politician is asked about their team’s potential at the football finals, while every media commentator has their eye on the Commonwealth Games. The distribution of State money between various art forms aside, opera still represents a common meeting ground for excellence in a range of Australian arts – singing, instrumental music, theatre, acting, design, new media. But I digress. Another key contextual element for me was the electrifying workshop performance at Macquarie University of postgrad drama students running through several scenarios from commedia dell’arte, as part of that university’s Open Day. It takes a lot for me to travel across town on a Saturday to witness a mere thirty minutes of art; the whole thing, done by public transport, took up half a day. And the overriding memory was of the crouching Arlecchino before a Pantalone, with his nose high in the air, disdainful and cruel, a fawning Arlecchino, nursing a bite on his arm. I’m hoping for strong partecipation at a series of lectures on Italian theatre organising by the Sydney Dante Alighieri Society in the coming month, which naturally will include commedia dell’arte. Outside performances of Goldoni, I can probably only count on one hand the number of time live commedia dell’arte has been seen in Sydney in the last forty years. It seems to have been, and remains, the stuff of postgraduate students of Italian, more read about than experienced.

Along with this pained Arlecchino, I’ve been pining for another dose of Anthony Warlow in Pirates of Penzance since seeing the master at work in Little Night Music. There is nothing like this man’s comic timing – it is the most scintillating, shimmering experience to behold. Words almost fail me. Every actor in town should be drinking in this man’s comic timing.

This long-winded contextualisation brings me to Kanen Breen, another whose comic skills are breathtaking, completely absorbing at the time and long after the stuff of reminiscence. I have consciously gone through the 2011 production lineup of OA, with pen hovering over my subscription application, noting just those performances in which Mr Breen will appear.

There was a striking transparency in the overture. The orchestral playing was light, furtive and searching; you could see through the flesh to the skeleton. And what happened over the next three hours was an incredible sensitivity to the orchestral playing. Of course the action on stage detracts a lot from focussing on the orchestra, but I was forever being drawn to moments in the Requiem, to the Don, to Magic Flute, to all manner of other Mozart by the harmonic progressions, by the orchestral light-and-shade, by the harmonic torture underpinning those moments of supreme drama on the stage. It takes a very special orchestral performance to throw one’s ears in these other directions momentarily. It’s not just a simple recognition game – this orchestral performance knits Figaro tightly into the Mozart oeuvre; opera informing as well as being entertaining. Similarly the fortepiano’s fine work in the recits – the collaboration with the singers was enormously special. If only because the use of a piano here is leading us on to the post-Mozartian world of accompanied song. The orchestra’s contribution was so great I would have loved to have attended a repeat performance just to study them more carefully, to note more carefully those arias using the clarinet. What critics of opera don’t get is that OA performances are ‘too much’, they present audiences with just so much to take in that a single viewing is never enough. I come away exultant, but having just connected with 30 or 40 or 60% of what happened. 

By late September, Teddy Tahu Rhodes, Taryn Fiebig, Warwick Fyfe, Peter Coleman-Wright and Sian Pendry were substituted by others, so I’m not going to dwell on what would have been.

Jose Carbo was an absolute delight and I never tire of hearing him; watching him makes me feel like I am inside European Opera, I feel I am in Europe watching a ‘real’ opera singer. I don’t want to get into a discussion about Autralian opera and local traditions and perspectives – I go to modern Australian operas and support living composers – but there is something to be said for a singer who can so credibly honour the tradition of opera the way Carbo seems to. He demonstrated this in Barber and similarly conveys this power in Boheme and others. Like Warlow, his timing is impeccable; like Breen, his ability to match choreography with vocal statement is breath-taking. He has none of the woodenness that characterisation of the Count is prone to, that strident hubris born of his position; Carbo manages to retain, despite those stark moments of unmitigated fury, that flexibility which makes the potential forgiveness, and its actuality, credible.

I was utterly transfixed by the look and sound of Rachelle Durkin as Countess Almaviva. Her physical appearance extraordinary and as was her ability to communicate the different aspects of the character – the opening aria of hers alone in her single-bed room, her interaction with Cherubino, not to mention confronting the whip-bearing Count. The febrile exhaustion might have come across as ludicrous but she walks that fine line between stock-character comic and the truly harried. We have to be drawn into her plight, identifying completely with her struggle, and Durkin does that very very convincingly. 

Kanen Breen I’ve already mentioned and what I admire most about his performances is his ability to be not just memorable but to so actively elucidate character and plumb new depths in vocal explication of might otherwise be an insubstantial stock character or minor presence. He never upstages or hogs the limelight; his ensemble work is brilliant and the voice is to die for. His comic genius doesn’t set the music-master apart from the rest of the cast, it points up his participation in the struggle between men and women – he’s not “immune” from that contest. Ultimately, too, Breen’s contribution to the role in Act III is important as a fabricator – he ‘orchestrates’ the play-within-the-play, the ‘performance’ of the marriage proceedings. Which brings us to Armfield’s mastery in constantly defusing the veering towards tragedy and ‘realism’ by reminding us that this is ‘just’ a play. Breen’s physical man-handling of the cast into position is magnified by the lighting effects, both the photographic flash as well as the spotlight on the Count – so all power to the lighting designer, Rory Dempster. 

Jacqueline Dark in a similar way to Breen elucidates her Marcellina in new and exciting ways. Prima la parola has mentioned the finger-pointing at the conductor/Mozart and her allowing to be asked to return to the stage for a ‘song’. This is not just Armfield shedding new light on the work through comic gesture, though through such gestures Armfield ‘lifts’ this production beyond the norm, beyond the anticipated and the routine. These gestures allow for more intense audience interaction which gives the singers confidence which has a run-on effect on their portrayal of character through voice. So Dark’s interpretation of Marcellina in Act 1 seems to blossom and shed new light on the interaction with Susanna. The interaction between the women is crucial to a convincing portrayal of the struggle between the men and the women in this piece. I’m reading Banti’s “Artemisia” at the moment and the heroine’s interaction with other women is as telling as her struggles with men.

Part of me is still in shock-and-awe after Armfield’s Peter Grimes and while the Netrebko/Harnoncourt Salzburg means a lot to me, with its framing of relationships in the mode of ‘serious’, I am mightily impressed by the enormous depths plumbed in this production in the direction of the comic, by the polish gesture seems to bring to operas like this, by the degree to which the ‘look’ – whether it be Durkin pushing out her fragile long arms or Breen curling his fingers about his arms in disdain – can impact on the vibrancy and confidence of the vocal experience.

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