Mozart's operas are so popular that I should have known better than to wait on line Saturday night when we arrived in Paris to try to get an unused seat to the prima of Le Nozze di Figaro at the Palais Garnier. There were a couple available but not for me. This is the controversial staging, directed by Christoph Marthaler, that Gérard Mortier has brought to Paris from the Salzburg Festival. Judging from the vicious reviews that I read this week, I should be glad not to have been in the hall after all. Jean-Louis Validire's review (Les Noces chez les petits-bourgeois, March 22) for Le Figaro pulled no punches (my translation):
[This production] is based on an aesthetic of great formal ugliness and a reductive, even negating, approach to Mozart's opera and Da Ponte's libretto. [...] The vocal disappointment came from the Countess, Christiane Oelze, who was Susanna four years ago. Outdone by a role that she has not mastered, she was limited in ways that drained all the grace and melancholy from the very nostalgic Dove sono i bei momenti, while Heidi Grant Murphy, after a laborious beginning, had a pretty tone in Deh veni.Even worse, apparently the recitatives were played by a sort of homeless man character (Jürg Kienberger), on a synthesizer and other strange instruments. He also played, at one point, two Mozart arias that are not even part of the opera, on a sort of glass harmonica. Validire reserves the following remark for the conductor: "Sylvain Cambreling at one point used a camera to photograph the marriage. Let's hope that he does not get that film developed, which in imitation of his conducting, will probably be out of focus."
But such effort was pointless against a staging and direction that plunged this featureless and above all meaningless production into boredom. To transpose Marriage of Figaro into the petit-bourgeois universe of a tailor's shop in the 1970s, with a depressing set, certainly reveals an iconoclastic desire to break with the tradition of Strehler but does not bring any satisfactory illumination. One of the symbols of the opera and of the confrontation between the aristocrat and his valet is based on the desire of the Count to reestablish the droit de cuissage for Susanna, who is supposed to be marrying Figaro. This is a situation that is impossible to understand with someone who deals in old clothes and who, furthermore, could hardly have the authority to send his apprentice Cherubino into the army. We are well beyond mere anachronism here. The Marriage of Figaro is nothing more than a pretext for a director who does not possess the time or the talent to write his own text.
In his review (Un dégrisant retour de "Noces", March 21) in Le Monde, Renaud Machart noted that the premiere of this production in Salzburg was critically praised, including by Le Monde, although some in the audience made their discontent quite clear. He reports that some spectators shouted "Urtext!" at the unusual "continuo player" and that there were similar protests in Paris on Saturday. Machart comes to his defense (my translation):
In Paris, there was also strong disapproval, notably against the récitativiste. Mistake: Jürg Kienberger, an actor and musician who is a regular in the Marthaler universe, plays in a way much more suggestive than most continuo players playing on terrible metallic harpsichords. [...] Nevertheless, it must be admitted that this revival disappoints. The production is five years old. Some details seem dated, others are lacking: in 2001, the Countess made her first appearance in bare feet, which emphasized the weary sadness of this down-and-out character, never far from a bottle of schnapps. [...]Well, it doesn't sound like I should be too sad to have missed it. The major event of the Paris season, the world premiere of Kaija Saariaho's Adriana Mater, a commission of the Opéra national de Paris, will take place on March 30. We can all look forward to Alex Ross's report.
How can this be a unified work with so many musical parts missing? If the male roles are filled remarkably (notably the impeccable Peter Mattei as Comte Almaviva and Lorenzo Regazzo as Figaro), the female cast is lightweight: Heidi Grant Murphy (Susanna) has a voice with a fine point that would be perfect for Barberina; Christiane Oelze, the Susanna in Salzburg, is not a Countess. [...] In Paris, where Gérard Mortier has made the error of overusing his old traveling companion (Sylvain Cambreling is the pseudo-musical director of the Opéra because the general director could not name him to the post when the Orchestre de l'Opéra would not have accepted him). One is shocked at the rather ordinary musical imagination of this French conductor and by the mediocrity of the orchestra.