CLOTHES MAKE THE MAN
The relationship of Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra with the operas of Mozart is long-standing and well-known: this (obviously) requited love already bore fruit decades ago, the memorable performances of Idomeneo or the concert-performance of The Magic Flute. By KRISTÓF CSENGERY
Over the past few years the conductor and his ensemble have primarily concentrated on the three Da Ponte operas (The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte). The most recent staging of Figaro dates back to 2009 in the MÜPA, the Palace of Arts, when it was performed in an exceptional context: only a few months after Fischer and his orchestra premiered the somewhat “Hungarianised” version of the Così staged in 2006 in Glyndebourne (which was also conducted by Fischer), with the original cast. This was a resounding success, but the welcome received by Figaro in March 2009 was even greater – both the audience and critics talked about it as a revelation, the overwhelming victory of Fischer’s unique concept of the “concert-theatre”. Those having vivid memories of this encounter might have been surprised to learn that barely 4 years later the conductor and his orchestra returned to Figaro – though the repetition might also be considered logical: once a success, always a success.
I have been a regular at the concerts of the BFO for 30 years (i.e. from the very beginning), I was there at their opening concert, but unfortunately, by accident, I did not see the afore-mentioned Figaro in 2009. However, after hearing and seeing this one I am empowered to write about preserving and further developing the former concept, as I know the reviews very well and the conductor himself has talked about his intentions to further develop the original idea. The essence here is a sort of free and creative podium-theatre, which is by no means the equivalent of “minimalist scenery” (Fischer rejects this terminology), neither does it have anything to do with “concert-like” productions with artists standing on the stage in black tie and evening dress. There is some symbolic scenery and props – an armchair, a guitar or a wig – and there is a multitude of costumes: some on the stage, on hangers, coat pegs, some high up, hanging over the singers (since in this production the spacious stage of the MÜPA is fully exploited both horizontally and vertically). There are a few doors, where characters can enter and leave, and there is an excellent international cast, who walking up and down various platforms create the impression of improvised ease and naturalness, with a flavour of the golden age of commedia dell’ arte and yet we know for sure that everything we see is perfectly and meticulously planned. Fischer conducting without a partiture (!) and his orchestra sitting on the podium (à la Ljubimov) are also organic and active parts of the production, just like four years ago: the busy prop man (or rather prop woman), a player herself, puts a wig on the head of the conductor (and some musicians) from time to time. The empty chairs next to the musicians are sometimes taken by the singers, other times by the members of the choir or the young dancers, mime artists, who play the pantomime accompanying the opera. Sometimes they embrace on the floor suggesting that in Figaro, everything revolves around love.
And – at least in this performance – about playing. Although, according to the creed of Iván Fischer, the director, this piece is the comedy of costumes and changing, which following the rule of the archaic theatre-magic, transforms us into somebody else, hiding behind the tools, objects of another personality, I still had the impression that the performance itself – not annulling the essential message – conveys an additional message as well: life is a game, we are players in it, it is full of secrets, excitement, furious, sad or painful hide-and-seek with one another, with the era we live in, with the situation – and with ourselves. Because the production was also a depiction of the era, the final days of feudalism, and the “velvet revolution” (voilà, another type of textile) of the plebs, common people we always sympathise with, during which on a foolish day without blood and violence we can make fool of our master, the Count, who wants to covertly restore the humiliating jus primae noctis.
According to the original plans, the BFO performance four years ago was to present an all-foreign cast, it was only by chance that Jekatyerina Sjurina in the role of Susanna was finally replaced by Zita Váradi, a member of the Hungarian State Opera, with great success. This time, however, everybody was a foreigner, and with the only exception of the veteran bassist, Robert Lloyd (73) playing Bartolo, who entertained the audience in the same role 4 years ago, and who now was the link between the two performances, it was a completely new cast. Reviews of the singers were all positive in 2009 – and I cannot criticise the present artists either. World class: I would use this expression to describe the state and quality of voices, the performances in terms of intonation, phrasing and dynamics. In this homogeneous context, where everything can only be described in superlatives, even the tiniest flaw is conspicuous, but there was hardly anything that would qualify as a flaw, with the only exception perhaps of the intonation of the aria Dove sono i bei momenti of the Countess (unfortunately one of the most enchanting parts of the opera), which sounded a bit uncertain. But this is where the list of critical remarks ends – here everybody was excellent. Magnificent soloists and a superb orchestra – we enjoyed both during the performance. (I heard the last of the three consecutive performances, and I am convinced that I was lucky to hear the most mature performance, I am sure that during the rehearsals and the first two nights everything was polished to be perfect on Sunday.)
Hanno Müller-Brachmann in the title role did not tilt the balance of the character, neither towards the ingenuity of the canny servant, nor towards the justified anger of the plebeian figure making fool of the Count (Se vuol ballare, signor Contino): he built up the character from both sets of features, showing us a colourful, complex and – of course – a charming, attractive person. Laura Tatulescu as Susanna, was a similarly complex character: pure in spirit, daring, resourceful, and humorous – of course she was also charming and attractive. Roman Trekel, the formidable singer of the Berliner Staatsoper, however, did not try to preserve a delicate balance, he accentuated one particular aspect of his character. His Count focuses on wickedness and intrigue from the complexity of the character – this Almaviva is an utterly bad guy (as I usually put it: if I were a dog, I would bite him), he prefers oblique ways, in addition he is arrogant, fraudulent and violent. Miah Persson’s Countess lags a bit behind the great performers of the legendary character: her personality is not strong enough to make us think of what we usually and unavoidably associate the greatest Countesses with: namely, Richard Strauss’s Marschallina. But this Countess is still worthy of the role and the story: she has her integrity, acquired nobility (which is more genuine than the inherited rank), inner and external (musical and human) beauty.
Rachel Frenkel, as Cherubino, is a bit more of a girl than a boy – but even this way she can convey the trans-sexuality of the adolescent god of love, the vibrant, ambiguous erotic (our enlightened age, which understands and lives diversity, clearly sees what for centuries has been a suspicion that nobody has dared to declare: the cult of breeches roles implied an elevated and sensual game with homosexuality). In the duet of Marcellina and Bartolo the experienced Ann Murray (also excellent also in the Harnoncourt recording) and Robert Lloyd, elegant and highly professional even today, were tastefully moderate and perfect, whereas Rodolphe Briand and Matteo Peirone, in the roles of Basilio/Don Curzio and Antonio with the lively colours of their full-bloodied comic performance injected fresh blood into the blood circulation of the production. Finally, the real discovery in the cast, Norma Nahoun in the tiny role of Barbarina, was perfect both as an opera singer and as an actress, which made the audience hope to see her in major roles in the near future. The Festival Orchestra played with their heart and soul, and in the centre of the magnificent group of singers, like the Sun amongst the stars, was Iván Fischer, the director and conductor of the opera, standing (sometimes sitting), knowing every score of the piece, radiating with unparalleled stability, wisdom and passion for making music.