A snappy red convertible crunches to a halt before a Moorish palace. A fashionable couple emerges from the car. Servants descend on them. Count and Countess Almaviva have arrived for some summer fun.
In an amusing new production of Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” at Glyndebourne, director Michael Grandage reimagines the opera as a hymn to the type of decadence glamorized in Joan Collins’s soft-core films of the 1970s. Sex on the mind, marijuana freely available, too much lip gloss, that sort of thing. It works great.
It looks enticing, too. Designer Christopher Oram creates a revolving set of tiled and sun-drenched rooms, which recall the Alhambra Palace in southern Spain. There are Moorish archways, decorated grilles on the windows and grand armorial ceilings. The Countess sports a paisley headscarf and kaftan.
This is the playground in which velvet-clad playboy Count Almaviva (Audun Iversen) smokes his joints, twirls his fashionably droopy moustache, and tries to get into the blouse of his maid Susanna (Lydia Teuscher).
The setting makes sense of the sex-fueled politics of the piece, and offers us a chance to see a funny and lush-voiced Cherubino (Isabel Leonard), desperate for some adult action.
The energetic cast, which also includes Vito Priante as Figaro and Sally Matthews as the Countess, can all act well and they have youthfully attractive, supple voices.
Yet there’s not enough sense of the background to the relationships, of old loves and losses. The comedy lacks an edge of pain. Perhaps it all will deepen and mature during the run: The cast is good enough.
Two maturer performers show how it can be done. Andrew Shore (Bartolo) and Ann Murray (Marcellina) live their roles down to their fingertips, and make their characters’ improbable reconciliation convincingly touching.
Robin Ticciati’s fizzy conducting of the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment adds sparkle.
Pop star Damon Albarn’s latest stage work “Dr Dee” at English National Opera is a meditation on the life of the 16th-century English occultist John Dee.
Through a series of masque-like tableaux, we watch Dee (actor Paul Hilton) progress from a learned boy to a disillusioned old man.
The emotional temperature is cool. A potentially lively plot device, in which a fake medium demands access to the bed of Dee’s wife in return for hermetic secrets, is dispatched curiously quickly.
Albarn’s short numbers are composed for orchestra in a patchwork of pastiche Elizabethan styles, folk-pop idioms and long pedal notes in the manner of Philip Glass. It falls easily on the ear without generating much tension. It’s music as soundtrack, not opera.
Albarn himself, clad in jeans and perched above the action on a platform, sings a few of the songs in a raspy baritone. He doesn’t trouble himself about dispensable little things like consonants, vocal color or proper breathing.
What rescues the piece is Rufus Norris’s visually exuberant period-costume production, full of witty projections and spectacle. Books open up into long concertinas which chase Dee around the stage. Queen Elizabeth rises up into the flies. We watch Dee’s child grow into an adult, courtesy of a clever mix of live action, silhouette and projection.
The bona fide opera performers Steven Page (evil spymaster Walsingham) and Anna Dennis (Dee’s daughter) are fine, and Stephen Higgins holds it together in the pit. Rating: ***.
Opera Holland Park has unearthed a gem with Mascagni’s rarely performed one-act opera “Zanetto” (1896), which tells the tale of Silvia, a love-weary Renaissance lady (Janice Watson), and a young poet called Zanetto (Patrica Orr). Silvia sacrifices her feelings of love to protect Zanetto’s youthful innocence, and she sends him away.
The piece drips with melody, the heart-on-sleeve orchestral writing is rich, and the delightfully silly drama unfolds with concision. Watson and Orr sing with passion, and Manlio Benzi’s conducting hits just the right tone of emotional expansion.
Director Martin Lloyd-Evans updates the action to the dressing room of a star actress circa 1900, which makes nonsense of Zanetto’s supposed innocence. Lloyd-Evans does a better job with a funny and fast-paced staging of Puccini’s “Gianni Schicchi,” performed as a double bill, with star bass-baritone Alan Opie in the title role. Rating: ***.
“Le nozze di Figaro” is in repertoire at Glyndebourne. Information: http://www.glyndebourne.com or +44-1273-813813; “Dr Dee” is in repertoire at ENO, http://www.eno.org or +44-20-7845-9300; “Zanetto” and “Gianni Schicchi,” supported by Winton Capital Management Ltd., are in repertoire at Opera Holland Park, http://www.operahollandpark.com or +44-300-999-1000.
What the Stars Mean: **** Excellent *** Good ** Average * Poor (No stars)Worthless
Muse highlights include Richard Vines on dining.
(Warwick Thompson is a critic for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)