Every year, Glyndebourne brings an opera from their festival to the BBC Proms and adapts it to the Royal Albert Hall stage. This year they brought their hottest production of the summer, The Marriage of Figaro (directed at Glyndebourne by Michael Grandage and adapted for the Proms by Ian Rutherford), and it was wonderful to see the Albert Hall packed to rafters. Amusingly, some prommers in the Arena were in the proper Glyndebourne spirit, with black ties and evening wear.
I had already seen the production earlier this summer at Glyndebourne so it was difficult for me to judge how the pared-down production on a temporary raised stage with very basic set and props (a couple of door frames and chairs, although everyone was in full costume) came across to the Proms audience who was seeing it for the first time, but I can say with confidence that musically we lost nothing from the fully-staged production. In fact, although Grandage’s production at Glyndebourne updates the setting to the 1970s Seville with stylish scenery and costumes, there is no radical re-interpretation of the story, focusing rather on the relationships between the characters, and as a result it worked quite well on the Proms stage. If anything, having completed the whole run at Glyndebourne, the vocal ensemble as well as the timings of the dialogues sounded even better.
Glyndebourne has assembled a strong cast for this new Figaro production although the female singers had the edge over the men, both vocally and in the acting. The stand-out singers for me both at Glyndebourne and at the Proms were Sally Matthews (the Countess) and Isabel Leonard (Cherubino). It is hard to believe this was the first time for Sally Matthews in the role of the Countess, as it fits her perfectly and the arias were sung in radiant voice. The young American mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard also impressed me in this production: she has a creamy and sonorous voice and she was convincing in her portrayal as an adolescent in love with the Countess. In the staged production there was a palpable intimacy between her and the Countess, which admittedly was lost in the vast open space of the Albert Hall, but still her singing was elegant and technically fine. Lydia Teuscher’s Susanna and Vito Priante’s Figaro were well matched vocally and in character – they came across as very honest and sincere, rather clever and scheming servants. I found Priante’s voice at times a little lightweight, lacking the heft in the lower register. Of the main roles, Audun Iverson’s Count was the weakest in terms of characterization: he seemed rather bland and comical (admittedly with an unflattering wig) and neither his flirting nor his jealousy seemed convincing. In the minor roles we had luxury casting – Ann Murray as Marcellina and Andrew Shore as Bartolo – and Murray’s vocal clarity served as a model for all.
On top of the high-quality singing, what made this Figaro special was the conducting of Robin Ticciati, who will take over as music director of Glyndebourne Festival Opera from January 2014. I heard Ticciati conduct this opera, again with the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, a few years ago in Tokyo – at the time I had been impressed with his sensitive and nuanced approach to Mozart, and this impression was reinforced this summer. Unlike many of the current crop of rising young conductors, Ticciati generally doesn’t “push” or “drive” the orchestra – there is a classical poise to his conducting, and his tempos may be swift but are never hurried or hard-driven. Yet his directions are always incisive and he knows exactly what sound and timbre he wants from the orchestra, and he gets it. He really has a special feeling for Mozart which bodes well for his tenure at Glyndebourne.
There was an obvious trust between Ticciati and the orchestra – the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment on period instruments performed with versatility and detailed attention to phrasing and colour. They brought a transparency to the orchestral texture which highlighted Mozart’s ingenious writing for the inner voices, which one doesn’t usually notice. The strings played with finesse and warmth and the woodwind solos blended naturally with the voices in the arias, especially the sublime clarinet solo in the Countess’s aria “Porgi amor”. In the end, it was the outstanding quality of the music-making and the emotional integrity of the characters that came across strongly in this Proms performance.
Royal Albert HallKensington Gore
London Greater London United Kingdom SW7 2AP
Nicholas Folwell and Audun Iversen as Antonio and Count Almaviva © BBC / Chris Christodoulou