British director, Nicholas Hytner, remarking on its indestructibility, once observed that one could set The Marriage of Figaro on the moon as long as the doors were in the right place. In fact, not such a strange idea, as Mozart’s great contemporary, Joseph Haydn, had set his opera Il mondo della luna (‘The World on the Moon’) exactly there.
One might wonder what Mozart would have made of the enduring popularity of his opera, the first of his three great collaborations with librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, and an opera constantly in the top ten of works performed. La folle journée, ou le Mariage de Figaro (1784), by Pierre Beaumarchais, was politically incendiary, incorporating some of the seething unrest that exploded in Paris a few years later. Mozart must have sensed that the play would translate effectively into opera, as it was he who suggested the project to Da Ponte, who, having constructed the libretto in six weeks, managed to get it approved by Emperor Joseph II. Da Ponte toned down the political content of the play – most notably the final speech of Figaro, which castigates the nobility – Da Ponte turning it into a diatribe against the unfaithfulness of women, but leaving enough ambiguity in the line: Il resto nol dico. Già ognuno lo sa (‘I won’t tell all the rest – everyone knows it’) – a contemporary audience would have picked up the inferences.
The quality of the opera was immediately recognised by most of the critics of the time. The work was warmly received by the public, with a respectable number of performances in Vienna followed by Prague, where the reception was even more enthusiastic: Joseph II decreed that only solo numbers could be encored. Haydn was the first great composer to express his admiration for the work, and many others followed, including Brahms who noted: ‘In my opinion, each number in Figaro is a miracle; it is totally beyond me how anyone could create anything so perfect; nothing like it was ever done again, not even by Beethoven.’
One of the many features of the work are the ensemble numbers where Mozart advances the plot while allowing each character their own thoughts and emotions. In the finales of acts two and four, he organically develops a fluidly moving and multi-textured synthesis of solos and ensembles, which are, in many ways, the crowning glory of the score; these operatic developments changed the nature of opera. One need only compare Figaro with the works of Mozart’s contemporaries such as Cimaroso’s Il Matrimonio Segreto (1792), Paisiello’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (1782), or any of Haydn’s many operas to begin to apprehend the nature of Mozart's unique genius.
‘Nicholas Hytner ... once observed that one could set The Marriage of Figaro on the moon as long as the doors were in the right place’
Opera Australia has had a hit-and-miss relationship with the opera. Figaro is a protean work that accommodates any number of interpretations and stagings, from attempts to address the slippery notion of ‘authenticity’, to a relocation in an apartment in New York’s Trump Tower, if not the moon. As Peter Sellars said of his staging: ‘Thank God the feudal system remains firmly in place in the United States of America in the 90’s.’ British director David McVicar decided to set the opera in the 1640s of the play, arguing that when first staged in Mozart’s time, and well into the nineteenth century, contemporary costumes reflected the seventeenth century. Only well after the Revolution were people comfortable about returning to the late eighteenth century. The exquisitely detailed costumes and sets by Jenny Tiramani are complemented by the flexible lighting design by David Finn, all creating a feeling of light and spaciousness evocative of summer evenings in Spain. McVicar’s setting thus places great faith in the power of the musical dramaturgy of the opera, eschewing any gimmicky regie-theater impositions, and faith as well in his cast of singers, who certainly deliver. The production is a triumph, ‘a palpable hit’. The elements of farcical comedy are all there, but a deep sense of humanity is pervasive, and evident throughout is the great attention to detail from the sparkling recitatives to absolute clarity in the direction of each individual.
‘Da Ponte toned down the political content of the play’
Mozart’s original interpreters were very young by our contemporary operatic standards, and this cast has a similar youthful profile. The bridal couple were played with energy and verve by Taryn Fiebig as Susanna – the role that essentially carries the opera, and only tiring a little in the final act – and Figaro by Paolo Bordogna: dark-hewed of voice and full of pent-up energy. But the vocal allure of the performance was with the Almavivas. Nicole Car as the countess is one of Australia's rapidly rising young singers. In a role that can be something of a milksop, she brought beautiful creamy tone and incisive line and ample personality to create a character who does much more than sing beautifully. Andrei Bondarenko is a rising star from Europe, possessing the vocal heft to convey the latent menace of the count. Physically languid in this interpretation, he was vocal dynamite – a voice already remarkably mature and nuanced. Anna Dowsley was a delightful Cherubino, all elbows, knees, and social awkwardness, but with a voice of rich hues: a young singer to watch. Marcellina (Jacqueline Dark) and Bartolo (Richard Anderson) had well-rounded comedic elements as well as moments of pathos in their performances, while Adrian Tamburini, Eva Kong, and Graeme Macfarlane rounded out the principals, providing solid vocal and dramatic support.
Conductor Guillaume Tourniaire held all the folly together with a sure hand. Tempi were, on the whole, well judged, if on the brisk side – the discovery of Susanna in the closet was rushed and missed the delicious humour – combining forward momentum with necessary lyricism. A well-deserved success for Opera Australia.
The Marriage of Figaro, directed by David McVicar, conducted by Guillaume Tourniaire and Anthony Legge, for Opera Australia, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 6–29 August, 2015; and Arts Centre Melbourne, State Theatre, 12—28 November. Performance attended: Saturday 22 August, 12.30pm.