Saturday, June 16, 2012

Un impegno nuziale: Christoph Marthaler's Nozze

Christoph Marthaler's production of Mozart's Nozze di Figaro was filmed in 2006 at the Opera National de Paris (although it was originally created for Salzburg in 2001; the Regiebier, Stiegl, survives.) Its final tableau, above, shows much of how its setting contributes to its exploration and critique of contemporary social norms. Set in the 1970s or '80s, between a wedding boutique and a registry office, the production is simultaneously cynical and compassionate about the problems with normative ideas of idealized romantic relationships, and the disastrous pressure to live up to them. The conductor, at intervals, photographs the personages in "suitable" tableaux. Doors marked for Damen und Herren in the background support Marthaler's pointed satire of this supposed/constructed oppositional binary. Marcellina's aria, "Il capro e la capretta," thus becomes an encapsulation of the production's thesis, and the remarks of Figaro about avenging all husbands, e.g., take on unusual significance. I sometimes felt this concept wore a little thin for Mozart and Da Ponte's lengthy and complex masterpiece, but Marthaler and the performers were scrupulous in realizing it. Precisely because Figaro and Susanna do interact with each other as unique, worthy, beloved individuals (sniff! I love them...) they survive the artificial "battle of the sexes," and their genuine affection cannot be sullied by any amount of kitsch. The other characters are neither so fortunate, nor so wise.

The orchestra, under Sylvain Cambreling, contributed crisp and clean playing. Tempi were brisk throughout, suggesting busy, even frenetic activity. Cambreling and Marthaler both were interested in drawing out the many nuances in recitative, and a versatile musician (Jürg Kienberger) appears on stage as a participant-observer, playing portions of the accompaniment usually taken by harpsichord on synthesizer, electric keyboard, plastic recorder, beer bottles, and glass harmonica, to name but a few of his instruments. The businesslike tempi had me missing the lightness and grace which I associate with many of the score's musical glories, and dramatically changed the tone of "Porgi, amor" and the "Canzonetta sull'aria," but the musical approach meshed aptly with the action on stage. This was not overtly politicized, but social critique was present, mostly through the sly usage of the corporate lectern pictured above (and Peter Mattei's fascinating Count, but more on him later.) The lectern is the platform for "Se vuol ballare"--more aspirational than subversive, perhaps?--and for "La vendetta." Cherubino, disguised in a torn wedding dress, ends up briefly behind the lectern before posing as mannequin (though I'm not sure what that means.) The Count's interrogation towards the end of the second act takes place there, as, significantly, does the Countess' icy declaration of pardon.

The cast of singers were all admirably committed to their characterizations, and vocally solid if not all exciting. Burkhard Ulrich was a smooth Basilio, giving his often-omitted Act IV aria as well as the rest of the performance with smarmy, sententious flair. Roland Bracht made a very good Bartolo, vocally expressive and agile, and he was well-partnered by Helene Schneiderman's Marcellina. The Cherubino of Christine Schäfer--a cutie in cargo pants, muscle t-shirt, and oversized spectacles and headphones--was one of the standouts of the performance. Schäfer gave a vocally excellent and genuinely touching Cherubino. The impudence and vulnerability of the page--naturally self-obsessed, reaching for self-awareness--were both vividly realized, and Schäfer's clear, intelligent singing was a delight. The Countess' ribbon, incidentally, is here a pair of hose which Cherubino adds to a growing collection of her lingerie. The sexual foreplay between him and the Countess after "Voi che sapete" (interrupted by Susanna with oblivious tactlessness) suggests that their liaison is still a thing of the future despite his attraction and the Countess' ennui. The Countess of Christine Oelze was bored and frustrated, wearing glam mask makeup and dealing with borderline alcoholism. Though tenderness and respect have eroded from her relationship with the Count, sexual attraction remains, leading to unexpected tensions with near-clinches and their angry avoidance. Oelze's singing was clean and pleasant enough, but I could have wished for more variation and nuance in tonal color, more glimpse of what's at stake for her in each musical moment. She did make clear, in "Dove sono," her anger and offended pride. In the opera's finale, it is blatantly apparent that what she wants is less reconciliation than revenge.

Crudel, perche finora...
Heidi Grant Murphy was an appealing Susanna, but more efficient than exciting, vocally. Efficiency was also made the keynote of her character, as a slightly-frazzled would-be organizer of her life and possibly everyone else's into the bargain. Withal, she was affectionate and playful with her winsome Figaro, Lorenzo Regazzo. Regazzo has a solid baritone which he used intelligently, alert to the ironies of the text. Able to laugh at himself as well as others, he put across the character of Figaro convincingly. I've saved Peter Mattei's Count for last because, in this performance,  his is the performance through which most vividly is sensed that this is all about much more than what's happening in the moment. Poignantly, the Count too seems aware of this. He is, on the one hand, a would-be despot of his household and business, a pathetic petty capitalist. He is also a man of not inconsiderable intelligence, more emotionally honest (for a change!) than the Countess, vain indeed, but also vulnerable. He is genuinely attracted to Susanna, and desires to be desired, even loved; this is more than the crude urge to possess. His jealousy of and vulnerability to the countess spring from more than self-regard. At this point in his career, it seems almost superfluous to state that Mattei's singing was nuanced and exciting, vocally and dramatically rich. His use of text gave much to ponder: for instance, after Susanna is discovered in the closet, it's clear that the Count is attempting to make light of his outburst, but also to make sense of the implications of his own emotions; his renewed oaths of love are uttered mechanically, but "Rosina!" passionately, pleadingly. Marthaler brought in interesting play with the Count's spectacles: when he takes them off it is a cue of greater vulnerability and greater honesty with himself.  Notably, he takes them off during the confusion of the final scene and does not replace them, or make any attempt to do so. For the Count, at least, something has changed... but Marthaler suggests that he and the rest of them may be trapped by the system which remains in place.

DVD available here.

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