Salzburg Festival 2023 Review: Le Nozze di Figaro

Led by Adriana Gonzalez, Sabine Devieilhe & Lea Desandre, This ‘Nozze’ is a Great Achievement

By João Marcos Copertino

(Photo Credit:  SF/Matthias Horn)

“Le Nozze di Figaro” in Salzburg is always a big challenge; it is Mozart’s city. The festival public is not conservative per se, but it does have high standards for Mozart, and will not willingly countenance simplistic approaches to the opera that would diminish Mozart and Da Ponte’s powerful message in name of some moralism.

But Marin Kušej and Raphael Pichon really got it right, and the audience loved it.

Kušej’s staging alludes to—or emulates—the New Hollywood gangster and crime films. Therefore, there is a looming sense of violence  all through the opera, while the anti-heroic qualities of the characters capture the audience’s sympathy. Such an approach makes “Le Nozze” thrilling and morally complex, but it comes at the expense of the opera’s more straightforward humor.

Humor Lost

There are some noticeable changes; one cannot move the action to the twentieth century without preserving the same moral codes on sex and marriage of the Ancient Régime. Sex now is less relevant than Love. Desire gets a bigger emphasis, and it is treated seriously, as a mode of life. Cherubino—unfairly portraited by scenographers lately as of the embodiment of callow love—becomes the center of a way of loving. His choleric heart now is more romantic and attractive. He might be the most attractive person on stage.

The Count and Figaro are protagonists of the same order of violence, though evidently of different ranks. In fact, given their male violence, they are compelling figures. Indeed, Kušej brings the sexy back to the Count—in some ways he looks like these terrifically violent anti-heroes in any mafia film.

All that said, the staging does not lack some senseless moments that felt out of place. Figaro’s wedding happening in a silent rave—a club without loudspeakers where everyone brings their own headphones—was mortifying but not funny. And I still do not fully grasp why there were so many shirtless men out hunting in the garden in the final act. But I will not complain.

Raimung Orfeo Voigt’s scenarios are highly aesthetic and pleasing to look at—indeed, I think it is one of the finest stages that I have ever seen in my life. They were, nevertheless, never too full of information and were properly functional. Friedrich Rom’s lighting is extraordinary, especially in the hard moments of the fourth act. There is a correct use of colors that had an impressive expression of its own.

The costumes by Alan Hranitlj are good, though a bit too clean and too tasteful for the mob of the 1980s. The female clothing, though remarkable, is hardly likeable. Finally, the small interjections of Max Pappenheim’s sound design are dramaturgically comprehensible and not fully unpleasant, though, even with some insightful variations from the harpsichord, all sounds heard next to Mozart’s sound inferior. It is not a matter of merely praising the old; just to state the facts, there is a reason why he was a Genius with a capital G.

Musical Strength

Raphael Pichon has a generous reading of “Le Nozze,” though it is noticeable that his musical relationship with the Vienna Philharmonic is not as smooth as the one he has with his Pygmalion Orchestra. VPO has no meekness in its approach. The sound wall is often higher than the singers’ voices, and the texture—albeit extraordinary per se—seems unwilling to compromise to a Mozartian reading not its own. Maybe we can say it is an orchestra of opinionated musicians, but their professionalism might have led them to keep their harangues to themselves.

The cast is led by an indubitably strong trio of soloists, all of whom sought to perform their parts with as much seriousness as possible. The most tragic, Adriana González’s Countess, is the saddest of all mob wives. Unloved, and morally comprised, she plays the cards she has, but she is aware of the limitations of her. Her voice, though embodying a disheartened character, was never devoid of lyricism and languid long lines. With a thick vibrato, and calm variations, González shone in the Countess’s two main arias as nobody else could—though I must say her “Dove Sono” was infinitely more moving that her “Porgi Amore.”

After a very good season, Sabine Devieilhe delivered a mature and psychologically dense Susanna. Quite likely the most complex of all Mozartian female characters, Susanna distinguishes herself for her deep sense of class consciousness and thoughtful search for dignity. Putting away any soubrette or coquetries overtones to the maid, Devieilhe brought out Susanna’s maturity. Beautiful and more realistic about her circumstances, this Susanna cannot escape the sexual harassment of the Count. The object of her fear is much bigger: to not own the rights over her life and future. While I am often mesmerized by Devieilhe’s beautiful tone—a lyric light voice with great projection, and an embracing lower harmonic resonance—, I was even more astonished by how she conveyed a lyricism tinged with melancholy. There was looming sorrow in the way that she sang “Deh vieni a non tardar.” Less a woman eager for marriage, there was some threat in where her undefined future might lead her — especially during the frightening events of the night. Her phrasing was never hashed, and her variations sough a romantic ideal of sublime pianissimo.

Lea Desandre gave Cherubino a level humanity unheard in this century. Forget her already captivating performance of the role at Opéra Garnier, here things reached new heights. Her approach to love seemed more inexperienced than naïve—more Octavian than Priapic. It is hard not to think that this is the core of attractiveness in the opera. After so long, I understand how Richard Strauss got his Octavian from Mozart’s Narcisetto. After Desandre, most Cherubini of the last 20 years or so seem like caricatures.

Musically, Desandre showcased the beauty and elegance of Mozartian lines, even when the phrases were short. “Non son più” had nothing of the asthmatic tone that often stalls singers. And her “Voi che sapete” was a masterclass showing that youthfulness does not necessarily mean childishness; instead of a clumsily horny gamin, we have a character ready to love — his desire is sexual, but not not solely sexual. The Count has his reasons to fear the Countess might have an affair, after all — who would not want her? Desandre, again, sang the variations in the slowest tempi possible, stretching the musical lines as much as possible, and thereby giving the role much scenic momentum. Being young, after all, is about the fascination of the blessed dawn of emotions and sensibility.

Less Impressive

The masculine cast, though more than efficient, is less impressive.

Krzysztof Bączyk’s more threatening  Figaro is the scariest of the gangsters. His often cadaverous tone sometimes prevented one from understanding the text in its entirety. He was, however, extremely capable of singing Figaro without any issue in the higher range, and in his hands, the barber — though less savvy than usual — is still a wise agent. Again, the fourth act aria was the most remarkable moment of his performance, though nobody had much to complain about his participation at the end of the first act; the problem is that there was, literally, so much blood happening through the windows that the music seemed secondary for a moment or two.

Andrè Schuen is an interesting choice to sing the Count. He looked too young and even too handsome to make Almaviva a character of mere entitlement and aristocracy. It was not hard to see that the count has had an easier life not only because of his power as a gangster, but also because people simply liked him better. To Schuen’s merit, here we have a count who brings out the shadier side of Almaviva in Beaumarchais’ “Le barbier de Seville;” the character is an extension of the evilness within the seducer type.

Schuen, however, was often only competent singing the part. I found his voice lacking the severity and gravitas to be scary to anyone — he often holds a gun, but, somehow, I doubted whether he could shoot it. In fact, during his third act aria, he could never manage to frighten anyone with phrases so aimless and lacking in tone.

Both Peter Kálmán’s Bartolo and Kristina Hammarström’s Marcellina suffered from stage direction that diminished their characters. In a staging that avoided the comic side of Mozart and Da Ponte’s work, much of Marcellina and Bartolo’s music was edited out — beyond the usual cuts of Marcellina’s aria in the fourth act. The revelation of Figaro’s genitors, for example, is a somewhat brief “drunk” moment in a bar – it is hard to see if they are actually serious about it. The subplot of Marcellina’s search to marry Figaro had next to no importance.

Serafina Starke made Barbarina a witty lyric voice, though a bit vain and less profound than the other characters.

Manuel Günther was an unholy Basilio, and Andrew Morstein plays a similar trait with his Don Cruzio.

Meanwhile, the Vienna State Opera choir did its part to make the night remarkable.

Overall, it was a superb staging of “Le Nozze” that dignified the festival’s long tradition in producing Mozart performances for the ages. Although there were some minor inconsistencies, the highs were so much greater than the lows that I can say, without hesitation, that it is the best “Le Nozze” that I’ve seen in the last five years.


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