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Photo by Antoni Bofill
Le Nozze di Figaro
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© A. Bofill
Le nozze di Figaro
The Marriage of Figaro is usually a joyous occasion, not just for the bride and groom, but very much for the audience. This Mozart opera has everything; a witty, at times rambunctious script by Lorenzo Da Ponte, based on a play by the hugely popular French playwright Pierre Augustin Beaumarchais. It captures you from the first moment with its freewheeling activity.
Figaro, the faithful servant, who facilitated his master the Count’s marriage against tough odds, is now preparing to marry his beloved Susanna, the Countess’s handmaid. Problem is the Count, who has developed a roving eye and decided that he should exert his droit de seigneur and rob Susanna of her virginity before the marriage night. The Countess, meanwhile, sad and neglected, turns for solace, though not seriously, to a young boy, Cherubino (a so-called 'trouser role' because it is sung by a woman). All manner of misunderstandings ensue and are all masterfully disentangled in an exquisite finale.
So, why was it that I felt depressed throughout the performance? Because I felt sadly let down by an opera house that has frequently thrilled me, and at the same time, I understood its dilemma, which is being shared by cultural institutions around the world: lack of money.
Until very recently, the Liceu was proudly world-class. It is a house that is not satisfied with just continuing the norms; it needs to innovate, to create and to excavate. The season’s repertoire regularly consisted of star-driven favorites, ranging from Wagner’s Ring with Placido Domingo and Deborah Voigt to L’Elisir d'Amore with Rolando Villazon. Many of the productions were joint conceptions with other leading European opera houses; they frequently sparkled and occasionally went over the top. Like most of today’s companies (the Vienna Staatsoper is a buttoned-up exception), the Liceu refused to be classical and often tortured logic by performing in totally inappropriate time-frames just for the hell of being different. But the music was exquisite, the acting and stage-direction dynamic and the standard of everything generally very high.
In between the favorites were (and still are) little-known operas resurrected from the dead or moribund, activities to spark the interest of children and create a new generation of opera-goers and an assortment of oddities that were generally most interesting.
The Liceu is still struggling to offer all of this but, alas, the money problems are becoming very visible. The difficulties have obviously been coming on for some time, but 'la crisis' has aggravated every symptom. Now the house simply cannot afford to support topflight casts, except on rare occasions or in recital. The governments of both Spain and Catalunya have had to cut back their financial support and, sadly, there has never been the tradition of massive private donations from the nouveau-very-riche, as in the United States and England, to buy their way into society. Not the most appealing method of financing art, but certainly an effective one.
And so, as a result, we had a weak Marriage of Figaro, with adequately talented singers who by no means embarrassed, but also by no means dazzled. Figaro, sung by Joan Martin-Royo, should have been a man of forceful voice and personality, but there was not a great deal of either. The voice was pleasant though not potent and much the same could be said for the presence. Borja Quiza, as the Count, also lacked aristocratic personality and his voice was less than commanding. The leading women, Ainhoa Garmendia as Susanna, Maite Alberola as the Countess and Maite Beaumont as Cherubino, were better but not stellar (though it might be hard to convince the lone maniac fan—husband? brother? father? agent?—who screamed “Bravo” nonstop every time Cherubino finished an aria, much to the amusement—and bemusement—of the rest of the audience).
To compound the difficulties of the presentation, the action was transposed to somewhere around the late Twenties (which reduced it to absurdity logically) and the scenery, from the 2008 production, smacked far more of a Noel Coward play than a Mozart opera. It soared above the singers, so that not only were some of the voices small, but the singers all looked Lilliputian.
The one very positive exception to this disappointment was the orchestra, under the direction of French conductor Christophe Rousset. Spritely, energetic and full of personality, it was almost a protagonist rather than an accompaniment and relieved some of the sadness of the evening.
I wish this could have been a more enthusiastic review, especially at a time when the Liceu must be feeling much pain. If they could be persuaded to cut next season drastically (in the hope that in a year or so things will right themselves) and maybe produce four topnotch operas with a carefully blended cast of stars and future stars, it may coax back the subscribers who have dropped away and will certainly show the spirit of excellence for which the house is rightly famous.
However, despite the decision to cut two months out of this season, there are still several operas to come. Il Burbero di Buon Cuore, a work by Spanish contemporary of Mozart, Martin y Soler, with a couple of arias by Mozart blended in, is playing until February 6th and is yet another example of the Liceu’s determination to broaden public knowledge of almost forgotten works. And it will be followed the ever-popular La Boheme. My hopes continue to run high.