How to stage an opera that has been produced in so many different ways already? How to avoid the trap of originality at any price? In this production of Théâtre National de Lorraine, represented in Rennes in May/June 2012, Jean Liermier has found an answer that is simple, elegant and it works. His staging simply follows the libretto and does without any unnecessary gesticulation, acrobatics and strip tease. He creates an ambiance of the roaring twenties, where the couple count and countess of Almaviva are young, elegant, glamorous, whereas the couple Susanna – Figaro are the classic servants, clad in servants’ uniforms: a blue and black striped dress for Susanna, and the usual chambermaid’s bib, a black suit for Figaro, his red waistcoat is embroidered with what must be the Almaviva arms, and he is seen to wear a chauffeur’s cap as well. Werner Strub’s costumes clearly show the social difference which the plot and most of all the music will later wipe out.
Raffaela Milanesi is playing the countess, a proud and wounded woman, with passion and dignity. Elegant from her little toe to the highest pianissimo that makes our hair stand on end, she shows at the same time those simple emotions that make her a touching human being. She plays the whole of the second act clad in a simple sexy silken nightgown without losing any of her aplomb, and without it taking any of the comic effects of the formidable final. This is performed with the proper comedy tempo, gags and puns are tight on the ground, we are laughing wholeheartedly, we are moved by what is almost a reconciliation, we are angry with Figaro at butting in and ruining it, and we are laughing again about Antonio (very funny in a cook’s hat and an interesting voice as well: Jean Segani) and his flowerpots, and so on – admiring all the while the subtlety of the composition which the Orchestre de Bretagne is rendering faithfully here. Conducted with insight and spirit by Ernesto Martinez Izquierdo, the orchestra is a character in its own right, laughing, commenting, sighing, singing along, and adding this special dimension to the work we love so well and over and over again. Caterina di Tonno, crystal clear and supple of voice, is playing a Susanna who is a simple woman, unfailingly optimist, and tenderly funny. The duet in act 3, this manifesto of feminine solidarity, works wonderfully between those two women, in spite of or maybe because of the contrast between the countess, elegant and lost in a green, loosely waving trouser-dress, that might come straight out of “The Great Gatsby” and Susanna’s simple and naïve wedding dress of white with big red dots. Cherubino is the mezzo-soprano Hélène Delalande. A rich voice with something like almost male metal in it and a long slim boyish figure make her a very credible and lovable Cherubino, all of amorous feelings and awkwardness. We should have liked to hear more of the rich and full voice of Kathleen Wilkinson – a pity that Marcellina has been robbed of her aria. The same goes for Léonard Pezzino (Don Basilio), whose clear and slightly bragging tenor voice makes the furtive singing master credible indeed. Vincent Billier is portraying Don Bartolo, pretentious and human (although we don’t quite understand if he is a lawyer or a medical man actually). The count of Almaviva is an elegantly simple man here: like a child, he wants what he sees, especially when it belongs to someone else, and now he wants Susanna. Like a child, he cannot understand why he can’t always get what he wants. Kevin Greewlaw gives depth and credibility to his character who finds himself duped at the end of every scene: amorous, unbelieving, angry – he is credible and still elegant in all of those changes, and sings his grand aria with lots of spirit and subtlety. Youri Kissin is Figaro, and his comic talent seems to surpass his talents as a singer, the first arias are frankly forced and a bit dry, although he seems to have found his voice by act 4 where he thunders very creditably through the aria. His Figaro seems a bit pale next to a Susanna full of energy and good humour. All the voices, however, blend beautifully in the ensembles, and the recitatives are admirably fine, accompanied with much delicacy by Alessandro Bicci on the harpsichord, who follows carefully every word and intonation. The Choir of Rennes Opéra, led by Gildas Pungier, is distinguishing itself once more by its subtle and nuanced singing.
The sets by Philippe Miesch are another variation on the theme of elegant simplicity: act one is played in a slightly sombre ambiance: the servants’ quarters, which look much like in “Upstairs, Downstairs”. The countess’s room for act two is very bright and the essence of elegant simplicity with just a bed, the necessary doors and a window that lets in such sunny light that we seem to feel the summer breeze that plays with the leaves outside (Jean-Philippe Roy has done a good job with the lighting all over), a clothes-rack with her dressing-gown and her guitar. Act three is set in a hall in the castle, bright again, and again there is mostly doors and windows, an ashtray and a bench where the count and the countess will sing their arias and marry the happier couples, killing each other with looks all the while, and Susanna write a letter, no more. Act four takes place in the castle’s wine cellar, a rather dark place, but a stair in the background leads up to a festively lit garden. The final is again performed at breakneck tempo, no time to catch our breath before the (real!) fireworks (giant sparklers, what fun!) and happy end, and we leave the house with a feeling of contentment at a truly lovely performance. A pity that a few latecomers had to enter the house when Figaro and Susanna had begun their duets, we would have preferred to hear their discussion instead or our neighbours taking their seats…