Le nozze di Figaro

Mozart: Le nozze di Figaro
The Grange Festival

Academy of Ancient Music, Richard Egarr
The Grange, Northington, Hampshire. 19 June 2019

What seemed to be the entire stage was visible to the arriving audience, a blank black space devoid of any scenery or clue as to the setting for the awaited Le nozze di Figaro. It was only when the Overture started that a rear curtain parted to reveal a shallow space at the back of the stage with tables set out for the servants of a great house. Said servants wandered in, some via the audience, with the usual paraphernalia of traditional country house of centuries gone, with guns and game slung over the shoulders of gamekeepers and bonny housemaids doing things with flowers. Were it not for the fact the much of adjoining The Grange mansion had long since been demolished, we could have been in the basement of the next door building.

For those who do not know The Grange, what does survive is the important early Georgian Neo-Classical cement-rendered exterior, surrounding a mid-17th-century brick house, one wall of which is now exposed following the removal of the extensive Private and Bachelor wings. The interior is in a wonderfully evocative almost completely unrestored state. At the end of the surviving screen wall of the private wing is the remains of the early 19th-century conservatory, later converted into a ballroom. In 2002, this was further converted into a magnificent multi-award-winning opera house by Grange Park Opera who were the instigators and focus of opera productions at The Grange between 1998 and 2016. They have now relocated to the new Theatre in the Woods at West Horsley Place, Surrey to be replaced at The Grange by the three-year-old Grange Festival.

What turned out to be the setting for this production of Le nozze di Figaro was a pretty effective version of 18th-century country house chic, reflecting the rather faded palace of Count Almaviva near Seville. A series of double-sided panels were cleverly moved around to create the various spaces, their mobility making for some impressively quick and subtle scene changes. The production team of Martin Lloyd-Evans, director, Tim Reed, designer, and Mitchell Harper, choreographer, created a very realistic, if a very traditional, approach to this well-loved opera. It was a very welcome change from the modernistic updates beloved of many directors, which often cloud the essence of the original opera. 

Martin Lloyd-Evans’ production highlighted the comedy of manners and the Enlightenment aspects of the plot, with frequent digs at the multi-layered class structure that Mozart was exploring. The relationships between the protagonists were more effectively portrayed than in many versions of Figaro that I have seen. There was a nice touch of uncertainty about the ending as to whether the Countess had really forgiven the errant Count.

Grange Figaro.jpgToby Girling, Wallis Giunta & Ellie Laugharne

Vocally it was very impressive, with a well-chosen cast of singers ranging in experience. You can click through to full details of all the singers here. Toby Girling was Count Almaviva, his skin-headed bullying and blustering giving way to what seemed like some genuine reflection as events unfolded around him. Curiously, he actually seemed visibly smaller when he appeared bewigged in the final scene, looking rather lost amongst the on-stage crowd. Simona Mihai as the Countess had rather too much vibrato for my taste, although she impressed as an actor. Two singers who excelled vocally as well their acting ability were Wallis Giunta as Cherubino and Rowan Pierce (first prize winner in the 2017 Grange Festival International Singing Competition) as Barbarina, both roles that are open to energetic characterisation which both took to with gusto.

Roberto Lorenzi’s Figaro was powerfully-voiced and imposing, eventually portraying the confidence that he used to stand up to the Count despite initially not quite getting Sussana’s clear concerns about the room that the Count had provided them with. A minor point in the first scene, but Figaro measured the bed, rather than the room, which made his sung dimensions a little strange. Ellie Laugharne’s Susanna was one of the highlights of the evening, not least with her Deh vieni. Louise Winter’s Marcellina managed the transformation from Figaro’s intended to his mother well, particularly in her Act 4 persona. Jonathan Best’s Dr Bartolo and Ben Johnson’s Don Basilio were well-portrayed and well-sung, while Richard Suart clearly enjoyed his role as the all-seeing gardener.

Grange figaro 2.jpgSimona Mihai & Roberto Lorenzi 

To top it all, we had the outstanding playing of the Academy of Ancient Music (led by Bojan Čičić) and their conductor Richard Egarr. From the start of the Overture, Egarrss focus on detail and contrasts were evident, his energetic conducting style sensitive to both orchestra and singers, energising the former and assisting the latter in equal measure. There were several moments of real punch from the orchestra, and a couple of extended crescendos that Rossini would have been proud of – perhaps a subtle reminder of last year’s Barbara of Seville, the later composed but an earlier story-line partner to Figaro. I was also impressed with Egarr’s fortepiano continuo playing, which often built out of the sound of the orchestra at the switch to recitative, maintain both momentum and musical integrity. His continuo realisations were very effective, generally simple and, when more elaborate, in the form of a composed accompaniment rather than the random twiddles of many continuo players. I am sure that many in the audience for early opera are like my companion for the evening in not realising that the conductor also plays the keyboard for all the recitatives. Joseph Crouch was the continuo cellist. Mozart does not supply many solo moments for the instrumentalists although the collective woodwind division deserves special mention for their contribution, notable the oboes and horns.

The quality of the playing stressed the importance of bringing in an established period instrument orchestra for operas like this, rather than a house band of whoever is available. I am looking forward to next week’s Belshazzar, with the choir and orchestra of The Sixteen.

Photos: Clive Barda