Opera Holland Park 2021 Review: The Marriage of Figaro

A Reflective Production of Famed Farce Unable to Find its Comedic Feet

By OperaWire Staff
(Credit: Ali Wright)

Opera Holland Park’s season opened this week with the quintessential summer opera – a new production by Oliver Platt of W.A. Mozart and Lorenzo Da Ponte’s “Le nozze di Figaro,” a farce that is still as sparklingly inventive and effervescent as it was over 200 years ago.

There is much to praise in this opening artistic salvo from James Clutton and his team at Opera Holland Park – as he noted before the show, it has been over 600 days since a live opera had been performed in its covered theatre. There are clearly hurdles the show is yet to overcome, some more significant than others. The acoustical challenges are considerable. The auditorium under the famous canopy has been created – beautifully, with reclaimed wood and quaint wooden chairs – by Greek designer takis.

Spacious & Airy, But Lacking Humor & Sound

It is more spacious and airy, which means no masks, but also that sound can disappear into the air all too easily, particularly for singers in their lower registers. The largeness of the space – wide rather than focused like a traditional theatre – means that the energies of the domestic comedy, the games of concealment and discovery, find it hard to accumulate, and an unfocused acoustic doesn’t help.

The arrangement of the staging – a rear platform for sets (also by takis) and a front horseshoe platform – places the orchestra in the middle, which can make the space feel very big indeed and characters too distant from each other, which feels out of step with the action of acts one and two. In short bursts, there is much to chuckle at, but as a driving force – or farce, perhaps – it struggled that night to get entirely off the ground. This is compounded, at points, by singers facing downstage and critical moments being lost to the atmosphere.

From a directorial side, some of the beats and timing will doubtless correct themselves over the course of the run, and any residual stiffness amongst the cast will yield to the fun of being back onstage again – a spritz of lemon juice is probably all that is required here. The funniest moments come from the outrageously silly parts – dancing, cartoonish gestures – and there are strong comic turns from Henry Grant Kerswell’s Antonio and Samantha Price’s vivacious Cherubino.

The distinctive aesthetic flavor of the show comes from its costumes, which hover between heritage eighteenth-century and New Romantic gaudy excess; they resonate most of all, to my eye, with the music video for Girls Aloud’s 2007 single ‘Can’t Speak French;’ I can only assume takis is a big fan.

Well-Worth Hearing

When voices are audible they are well worth hearing. Ross Ramgobin’s Figaro is lyrical and flexible, even if he is on the lighter side, though his stagecraft in “Se vuol ballare” was impressive and compelling – as well as his top F.

James Cleverton made a surprisingly substantial Bartolo in vocal terms, giving the character a potency that isn’t usually there (he seems, in this respect, a powerful and worthy antagonist.)

Samantha’s Price’s Cherubino had a breathless, desperate ardor and was in quicksilver voice; Claire Less’ Barbarina is blessed with one of the most strangely melancholy arias in all of opera in Act four, and delivered it with remarkable tenderness and clarity.

Julian van Mallaerts sang the Count with authority and bravado, though his big Act three aria rather fizzled at the climax – perhaps owing to him being sat in a chair for its blazing top F-sharp.

Most touching about the production is a combination of set and setting. Anna Picard’s illuminating program note describes the importance of the nocturnal garden stroll to the rumbling sexual impulses of the opera, contextualized by the various popular “pleasure gardens” of eighteenth-century London (It was a London-based singer, Nancy Storace, who originally created the role of Susanna). In Holland Park the distant moans of the peacocks drift into the open auditorium as the night air cools and darkness falls.

The ruminative lighting onstage draws us deeper into the yearning reveries of the work’s second half, and some of the magic felt like it started to kindle. The slightly Moorish arches of the design – this is Seville, of course – offer a whisper of exotic mystery; the New Romantics-inflected Adam and the Ants colors in the costumes and wigs adds a layer of wildness and caprice.

It was remarkable ultimately less for the comedy than the moments of reverie and tenderness that these elements summoned together. “Dove soon” was a standout moment of the evening for Nardus Williams, whose Countess channeled a deep melancholy; the soft return of the opening section (one of the great moments in opera) had an especially delicate glow in both orchestra and voice. Her duet with Susanna in “Canzonetta sull’aria” was equally intimate, lyrical, and searching; indeed Elizabeth Karani, as Susanna, found a special kind of quiet yearning in her nocturnal “Deh, vieni non tardar.”

This kind of singing opens up important aspects of the work. As Robin Thicknesse writes in the program, “Figaro” is an opera of ideas and human complexity that opens up, diorama style, the two-dimensional stock characters of the commedia dell’arte. It is also an opera of inwardness and reverie, an exploration of human desire and affect that spotlights the inner life in an especially thoughtful way.

The bittersweet final scene of the opera, where Van Mallaerts’ Count called for forgiveness, had this same inward and private quality – though in Platt’s production the Countess seemingly refuses to take him back, even if, as “one more kind than you,” she forgives his misdeeds. Forgiveness does not, as Platt’s production thoughtfully posits, mean reconciliation – these are the kinds of directorial subtlety that serve Mozart and Da Ponte very well indeed.

George Jackson conducted an orchestra of 17 players from the City of London Sinfonia with plenty of verve and clarity, in a slightly reduced orchestration that still had enough buzz – though the Act two finale could’ve done with a little more zest and abandon. An amplified fortepiano provided the continuo but was perhaps a touch loud given the acoustical challenges.

Overall there is much to admire musically and dramatically here though, and a promising start to an ambitious summer season from Opera Holland Park.

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