Festival d’Aix-En-Provence 2021 Review: Le Nozze di Figaro
Julie Fuchs Impresses In A Production Celebrating Human SexualityBy Alan Neilson
(Credit: Jean-Louis Fernandez)
The Festival d’Aix-en-Provence’s production of “Le Nozze di Figaro” was a visual stunner. Keeping up a brisk pace, it positively fizzed and sparkled as it zipped along, and had the audience roaring with laughter at what was a riotously funny presentation, full of color and bawdy humor.
Such was the director Lotte de Beer’s skill in handling the narrative, that the comedy, rather than detracting, magnified the humanity of the characters involved, and drew attention to their deep need for love and physical intimacy. Nor did de Beer shy away from imposing her own strong interpretation on the work, which although courting a degree of controversy, was firmly in accord with Mozart’s music, capturing its fundamental optimistic outlook which celebrates the human spirit and joy of life.
De Beer’s Imaginative and Provocative Direction
The idea of highlighting the power relationships within “Le Nozze di Figaro” and how they are used to exploit is nothing new; in fact it is fundamental to any understanding of the work. De Beer, however, takes this a step further to examine how power itself distorts the game of sex, allowing some to indulge their lusts as a form of entertainment and pleasure, whilst other are forced into defensive positions and unable to enjoy or even participate in the game, and concludes that in order for all to participate it is necessary to separate sex from power.
At this point, de Beer indulges in a piece of deft maneuvering which refocuses the interpretation onto identity, specifically gender identity, and by implication onto the exploitative nature of the patriarchy; sex is game for everyone, not just the heterosexual man. By the end of the Act four finale many of the women have been re-costumed with colorful penises and the men with breasts: gender fluidity has allowed people to move outside the role of a single preordained gender, undermined the foundations of the patriarchy and everyone is freed to participate in the game in the way they feel most comfortable.
To be fair to de Beer, she also briefly touched upon other issues, such as agism and sizeism, which is encouraged by society through its mocking attitudes and prejudices, and can cause suffering and frustration for people in search of love and sex. De Beer illustrated this most clearly through her treatment of Marcellina who was initially portrayed as an aging, overweight woman struggling with her burdens as she pursued Figaro, and at which the audience is encouraged to laugh. As De Beer states in her program notes “ Haha!! Here is a woman of a certain age wanting to have a relationship with a younger man. It is disgusting! Hahha!! In fact I don’t find it funny at all.” By encouraging the audience to laugh at the overweight, aging Marcellina, de Beer shines a spotlight back onto the audiences itself who in Act three were forced to confront their own attitudes. At the end of Act two, Marcellina symbolically rips off her fat suit and adopts a more youthful attitude, revealing a person that conforms to our prejudices. It was an ambiguous action, and left one wondering whether we are to celebrate it or to question what it means to celebrate it.
It was a reading which no doubt irritated some, while delighted others; either way it was certainly an interpretation in line with the current debate surrounding identity politics, and on this basis alone an approach worth exploring.
If de Beer’s underlying ideas did not necessarily convince everyone, her presentation would have disappointed very few. The performance did not finish until after 1 a.m. and the audience appeared as fresh and as enthusiastic as when it entered the theatre over three and half hours earlier.
A Production In Two Parts
The production was divided into two parts, each with its own distinct aesthetic and approach. The first two acts, set in the present day, were presented as a pure and simple farce in which every opportunity to maximize the comedy was exploited, whilst Acts three and four were given an abstract staging with powerful imagery to convey the inner pain and ultimate pleasure of the characters, as well as the deep psychological impact and the mystery which sex holds over people’s lives. The first half magnified the impact of the second; the exterior world, which we can all laugh at, and which we understand all too well, but find amusing in others, contrasted brilliantly with interior psychological world, with which we find it easy to sympathize, no doubt having experienced such pain ourselves.
De Beer showed herself to be expert in constructing the comedic scenes, taking advantage of the stereotypical behavior of the characters, such as Cherubino as the horny teenager, the Count as a naughty gentleman and so on. It made for great theatre and had everyone laughing as Cherubino hid in the tumbler dryer which was then switched on, and had Susanna panicking as she watched his legs spinning around. Nor did de Beer shy away from sexually explicit images and jokes as when Susanna opens a closet only to have two giant penises jump out and chase her around the stage, or when Cherubino is experiencing a giant erection, which Susanna uses as an ironing board to iron a shirt.
Rae Smith, the scenographer, created an imaginative staging which was easy on the eye, and allowed the space for the farcical hijinks. It consisted of two internal rooms in a house which transformed into an unpleasant outside environment. At the end of Act two, the backdrop fell to expose the edifice beneath, in what was a nice metaphorical leap to take us into the second half of the production.
Acts three and four were dominated by a glass cage, which was initially used to house the Countess. Over the course of the two acts a large multi-colored inflatable emerges from the centre of the a bed inside the cage, and grows into an odd looking shape which filled the stage; possibly a symbol representing the dominating position and mystery which sex plays in the lives of everyone’s conscious and unconscious, and the multi-forms in which our sexuality can be expressed.
The costume designer Jorine van Beek also helped to play up the contrasts between the two parts of the production, with standard, but effective costumes in the first part, and wonderfully bizarre and rainbow colored outfits in the second, into which the characters changed as they embraced their existing or new genders, with their colorful sexual appendages boldly displayed.
It was a presentation in which de Beer displayed considerable directorial talent. Not only did she successfully managed to integrate two apparently disparate readings into an insightful and coherent whole, but she did so in a way which was both entertaining and thought-provoking.
A Mixed Bag of Singers
It was the performance of Julie Fuchs as Susanna that will be remembered above all others. While her wonderful vocal qualities have been well documented, which she employed here with supreme confidence, it was her talent as comedy actress that really impressed. Rarely, do you find singers who possess that fine sense of comic timing which can turn even the most hackneyed moment of amusement into the genuinely hilarious. Fuchs’ every action, gesture and glance was executed with just the right emphasis.
The was also true of her singing in which she subtly inflected the voice to show surprise, playfulness and mock shock, all done with a degree of exaggeration to force home the humor of the situation. Of course, her performance went beyond just comedy, her Susanna was confident, intelligent and sensitive.
Her Act four aria “Deh vieni non tardar” allowed her to show off her musical sensitivity, in which her ability to softly caress the vocal line was deeply expressive, and a delight to listen to. It would be correct, however, to say that she detracted from the role of Figaro who was always in her shadow.
Not that Andrè Schuen, playing the role of Figaro, was particularly weak. He sang well enough, although without ever managing to fully establish his character, but then it is a tall order to play next to Fuchs who possesses such a strong stage personality. He has a pleasing, well-supported baritone with an attractive timbre, but used it rather conservatively.
Figaro’s aria “Non più andrai farfallone amoroso” which brings Act one to a rousing conclusion, can act as a showcase for the singer in the role. Unfortunately, Hegelbrock’s low-energy presentation lacked the necessary dynamic strength and contrast, which curtailed the impact of Schuen’s rendition, promoting delicacy at the expense of stridency, which undermined the tongue-in-cheek nature of the piece. Schuen’s ensemble singing was good, and his recitatives were crafted successfully to reflect the meaning of the text.
Gyula Orendt made for a very unpleasant Count Almaviva indeed. Not only was he happy chasing after the female servants, but was more than happy to find himself in the company of very young teenage girls. Yet, it was all done with a confident carefree swagger, which made him ideal for the role. His voice is strong and versatile, with an attractive seductive timbre, which he employed well, if sometimes without a great degree of subtlety.
Jacquelyn Wagner, playing the part of the Countess, bounced onto the stage dressed in pink lycra ready for her daily workout, enthusiastically engaging with the fun and hi-jinx. She also appeared comfortable in portraying her character’s underlying longing for love and inner sadness, although her vocal characterization was solid, rather than outstanding. Of her two famous arias “Porgi, amore” and “Dove sono i bei momenti,” the latter was the better, in which she beautifully captured the necessary emotional depth and lyrical intensity of the piece.
Mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre produced a convincing and amusing portrait of the hot-blooded teenage Cherubino whom she played with a natural boyish excitement, desperate for sex. Her fresh, clear singing captured the age and innocence of the character, and easily seduced the audience into sympathizing with him. Her two arias were given pleasing renditions, although her heavy vibrato detracted from the overall impression.
A High Profile Marcellina
Rarely does one witness a performance of “Le Nozze di Figaro” in which Marcellina has such a high profile. Mezzo-soprano Monica Bacelli in the role was superb as she hammed up the part for all it was worth, turning the mean old woman into a lively, spritely figure with a multi-layered personality. Watching her strip off and romp around the stage completely naked, before taking off what, in fact, was a fat suit to reveal a fashionably dressed younger woman underneath was great fun, and successfully highlighted that appearances are only skin deep. It was a confident performance by an singer who knew exactly how to get the best from the role.
Likewise bass Maurizio Muraro as Bartolo knew exactly what he was doing and produced a strong performance, characterizing the voice with skill and confidence.
Emiliano Gonzalez Toro possesses a clear tenor which he used to good effect in essaying the parts of Basilio and Curzio. Baritone Leonardo Galeazzi put in a strong performance as the gardener Antonio.
Soprano Elisabeth Boudreault played the role of Barbarina as a very young teenager, making her the perfect foil to the slightly older Cherubino. She produced a lively well-sung performance; her aria “L’ho perduto me meschina!” nicely capturing the worry and understated anxiety of losing the pin.
The musical direction was in the hands of Thomas Hegelbrock. Although employing brisk tempi, possibly in a attempt to support the pace of the onstage drama, he struggled to ignite the period instrument orchestra, the Balthasar Neumann Ensemble, whose performance was at times lackluster; dynamic contrasts were fairly flat and the colorful textures of the score were not fully exploited. Of course, modern instruments have certain advantages in this respect, however, Hegelbrock’s reading accentuated the fact, leaving some numbers, such as the overture, sounding lifeless by comparison. Nevertheless it had its compensations, especially in the more reflective moments, for example the Countess’ aria “Dove sono i bei momenti” for which he provided a deeply moving accompaniment. Overall, however, the orchestra never managed to match the onstage zip and energy
Although the musical side of the production was not ideal, it still had enough to delight, not least in the performance of Fuchs. And whilst de Lotte’s direction might have alienated a few more conservative (and even liberal) members of the audience, it certainly had the necessary energy, drive and sense of fun to entertain. As a celebration of plurality and malleable identity she was clearly courting controversy, but why shouldn’t she, after all this is a significant present day phenomena, and one in which opera has duty to involve itself.