Le Nozze di Figaro
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In Review > International

Le Nozze di Figaro

Salzburg Festival

In Review Salzburg Nozze hdl 2 1115
Bechtolf’s new Nozze di Figaro in Salzburg, with Fritsch, Gritskova and Jankova
© Salzburger Festspiele / Ruth Walz

THE OFFICIAL THEME of this year’s Salzburg Festival was “inequality,” which could easily refer to the happy few who can afford this famously exclusive (as well as expensive) festival and the mere mortals who cannot. I doubt, however, that this interpretation occurred to Sven-Eric Bechtolf, whose elegantly cinematic new production of Le Nozze di Figaro received something close to universal acclaim. As far as I could tell, Bechtolf, who is also the festival’s co-artistic director, with Helga Rabl-Stadler, drew inspiration from Jean Renoir’s classic 1939 film La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game), which, like the Beaumarchais play on which the opera is based, is a particularly piquant form of farce — a serious work about frivolous people. However, any hint at social commentary has been scrubbed clean from this new production of one of the most-staged works in the history of the festival. 

To be sure, da Ponte and Mozart took pains to tone down the more subversive and political elements present in the play, but opera directors in recent decades have found ways of drawing attention to the power dynamics — sex, gender, rank or money — at work. Bechtolf returned us to a conventional view of Figaro, in which the various social levels in the palace are perfectly chummy with each other, and unchecked jealousy and lust are played mostly for laughs. The only significant interpretive revision was in the character of Basilio, here depicted as a repressed homosexual pining away for Cherubino. It was one of the few times that Bechtolf seemed to take a particular point of view. 

Mostly, he seemed content to let his well-ordered production, updated to the early twentieth century, run its course. It worked magnificently, thanks to the stellar acting and vocal abilities of a glamorous cast, let loose on Alex Eales’s ingenious multi-level set, which depicted a dozen or so different locations in the Almaviva Palace, including the wine cellar, kitchen and the servants’ dining quarters. The last of these was the unlikely setting for the actual wedding, one of the production’s few inscrutable choices. Teeming with energy and verve, yet never overstuffed, this Figaro was also a much-appreciated counterpoint to the static and yawn-inducing Don Giovanni Bechtolf had furnished for last year’s festival. 

There was no shortage of great voices at Salzburg this year, but this Figaro boasted the most lavish ensemble cast. Bechtolf’s background is in drama, and the finely detailed theatrical performance he elicited was his major contribution to the show, as every member of the cast was thoroughly engaging, both individually and as members of a team. 

Luca Pisaroni lent his robust bass-baritone to Almaviva, peppering it with ambiguous shadings that expressed nervousness or suspicion. It was a wonderfully self-aware portrayal that alternated between agitation and authority and encapsulated the absurdity of the Count’s situation. Adam Plachetka’s Figaro, by comparison, was practically Zen. The young Czech bass-baritone sang with sweet, down-to-earth tones, as in his effectively understated “Non più andrai.” In the face of the other characters’ emotional turmoil, his Figaro seemed almost wisely serene. His careful diction and buoyant tone helped communicate a mischievous and winning sense of humor, while his vivid pantomiming kept the audience in stitches during much of Act II. Martina Janková, a fellow Czech, was a bright-voiced and dramatically nuanced Susanna. She remained in excellent voice throughout this marathon role, faltering only slightly during “Deh vieni, non tardar.” Anett Fritsch was an affecting and tragic Countess. The young German soprano, who made an electrifying impression here a year ago as Donna Elvira, sang with lush, aristocratic tone. In the forlorn “Dove sono,” her expressive warmth was bolstered by generous legato phrasing. And she harmonized wondrously with Jankova in a slow, delicate rendition of “Che soave zeffiretto.” 

Margarita Gritskova was a tough, scene-stealing Cherubino. In force and vivacity, the Russian mezzo’s performance brought to mind Elı¯na Garancˇa’s masterful Octavian in Berlin earlier this year. Tenor Paul Schweinester, an alumnus of Salzburg’s Young Singers Project, was an agitated, urgent Basilio, while veteran bass-baritone Carlos Chausson was mostly reserved and compassionate as Bartolo. This created a delightful contrast with the feisty Marcellina of Irish mezzo Ann Murray, who has been singing at the festival since 1981. The young Austrian soprano Christina Gansch made a surefooted Salzburg debut as Barbarina.  

In the pit, the Wiener Philharmoniker capped an action-packed weekend, which also included muscular performances of Fidelio and Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony (conducted by Bernard Haitink). Turning their attentions to Mozart, the musicians responded enthusiastically to Dan Ettinger’s baton. The Israeli conductor, a protegé of Barenboim who has led Figaro both in Munich and at the Met, navigated effortlessly between the opera’s comic and serious sides, paying close attention to his singers and emphasizing dramatic or thematic qualities with gently idiosyncratic tempos and occasional rests. With consummately Mozartean verve, the Viennese musicians made this great and well-known score vibrate and sparkle like new. —A.J. Goldmann 

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