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Fine singing but very questionable staging
on 8 June 2012
There is a definite duality concerning the Zurich Opera House. On the one hand it succeeds in attracting such famous names as Jonas Kaufman and Cecilia Bartoli and can also draw on a fine selection of regular performers including Rodney Gilfry, Eva Mei, Carlos Chausson, Liliana Nikiteanu and Volker Vogel, who all appear in this 1996 production of Le Nozze di Figaro under the baton of Nikolaus Harnoncourt. On the other hand Zurich has gained over the years a deserved reputation for some highly original staging which sometimes borders on the offensive (Handel staged in a mental hospital) and is often controversial. As far as staging and costumes go this production is a mishmash of confusing styles with a marked absence of theme and continuity. The impression is given that the propertymaster has visited a local jumble sale in order to furnish the production. Many of the Zurich familiars are there including ladders, deckchairs and paintpots. The comedy, such as it is, remains at an almost slapstick level which includes Susanna throwing paint at Marcellina. There is also a strong sexual overtone (breasts abound) and here the affection in act two shown to the hapless Cherubino by the countess and Susanna is far too explicit. Other "giggles", which include Basilio sporting a knapsack, abound.
The pecularities of both staging and the abundance of physical comedy seriously detract from a proper appreciation of the music. Such is a particular problem in act one but matters do improve in the following three acts. The last two acts are staged on something not unlike a dustbin on Mars but act four benefits from the clever use of a revolving stage which greatly aids the numerous entries and exits of the complicated night-time garden scene.
The production is fortunate to enjoy the benefit of some fine singing (hence three stars). Rodney Gilfey is impressive as the count and succeeds admirably in establishing character. All five female roles are well sung with the versatile Eve Mei outstanding as the countess. Her two famous arias are high points of the production. As Figaro Carlos Chausson does not fare so well. His singing is acceptable but he has difficulty in conveying character and initially he is not helped by an inappropriate costume. A regular at Zurich Nikolaus Harnoncourt enjoys a famous reputation but on this occasion a certain lightness of touch is missing.
The production is essentially an essay in opera theatre and will not enjoy universal approval. In the 1990s as part of a Mozart series John Eliot Gardiner masterminded a very enjoyable traditional version of the opera again with Rodney Gilfrey impressive as the count. A stand-out Figaro is the fine Norwegian baritone Knut Skram who brings both charm and elegance to the role. This 1973 production from Glyndebourne also has the great attraction of providing an opportunity to hear Ileana Cotrubas, Kire Te Kanawa and Frederica von Stade at a relatively early stage in their careers.