The phrase “comic opera” is usually a contradiction in terms. Countless directors get away with murder presenting well-sung collections of comedy cliches, thanks to theatrically uncritical behavior by opera audiences who are only there for the singing. A gag that would barely raise a smile onscreen and would be greeted by polite laughter among theatergoers reduces relieved opera auds to guffaws. Occasionally, however, a director like Stephen Langridge steers a cast that truly merits laughter.
The exhaustingly lengthy 4½-hour running time for “The Marriage of Figaro” suggests arrogant directorial flummery must have been inflicted upon Mozart’s most dramatically tight opera. In fact, Langridge’s exemplary production is at Grange Park, the Hampshire opera festival that rivals Glyndebourne for its breathtaking country setting and long (100 minute) picnic intermission. On the evidence of this year’s offerings, the talent isn’t far behind, either.
For Mozart’s superbly constructed upstairs-downstairs comedy, Langridge and designer George Souglides keep auds constantly aware of the life of the entire household by presenting the architecture of the house. Auds see through from the main action to spaces beyond, with adjacent rooms and hallways outlined by white empty frames delineating walls, doors and windows often filled with activity.
Seeing servants in permanent relation to their master and mistress places all the characters within the hierarchy upon which the complex plot depends. Better yet, it fleshes out individual scenarios. When the Count believes he has trapped the Countess’ supposed secret lover behind a locked door, instead of hearing sound effects of Cherubino in hiding, we actually see him struggling to get out of drag in silence, knocking over a rail of the Countess’ clothes.
This staging idea is hardly new; Jonathan Miller recently played a similar game with “Don Pasquale” at Covent Garden. But Langridge pulls it off with notable success by holding focus on the main action.
His control is at its strongest at the point where most productions fizzle out — in the final act where multiple revenge plots collide in a melee of disguise and deceit. Instead of overplayed stage-whispering and mugging, this cast’s leading members cavort beneath Wolfgang Gobbel’s ultraviolet light and inhabit their roles to a degree where constantly shifting relationships register with real emotional impact.
Olafur Sigurdarson’s Figaro is virile and forthright both tonally and physically, with an easily produced, huge baritone. Yet his final-act rage is all the more powerful for arriving as something of a surprise after his preceding knockabout good-humor.
As Susanna, Sophie Daneman is absolutely his match in her role debut. Known for her shimmering baroque sound for William Christie, she takes to Mozart’s detailed dramatic ebb and flow with delicious sangfroid, whether spinning ravishing, long pianissimo phrases while sexily slipping out of her wedding dress in the moonlight, or pinning down comedy by hurling herself across her mistress’s bed to hide from the Count.
These two characters power the plot, a juggling act made to look easy by Sigurdarson and Daneman’s vocal assurance and exuberant physical relaxation, which climaxes in a wholly detailed and engaging final-act fight that illuminates an often cloudy ensemble passage. The completeness of their perfs is even more impressive given that conductor Christian Curnyn doesn’t always harness his singers to the orchestra.
There’s some nicely articulated instrumental playing, notably in the clean, unrushed overture that emphasizes the household’s formality. Too often, though, outside of the fortepiano recitatives, it sounds as if Curnyn is trying to keep up with a score he should be controlling.
In leather jacket and jeans and grungy wig, Frances Bourne is a splendidly boyish Cherubino who, dressing up in women’s clothes, looks exactly like a straight teenager clumsily trying drag for the first time and then rather mischievously getting into the whole idea.
Holding to his principle of realistic casting, Langridge has good-looking, young Howard Reddy and Rebecca von Lipinski as the Count and Countess. Neither yet has the ideal vocal weight for the roles, but they make us believe the two of them were so in love that they eloped. Like the best of the production, they make dramatic sense.