Opera on the Gendarmenmarkt: Iván Fischer’s ‘Marriage of Figaro’

By Rebecca Schmid

The season is already underway in flying colors at the Konzerthaus Berlin. Iván Fischer, following an enthusiastically received appearance at the Mostly Mozart Festival, unveiled his concert staging of Le Nozze di Figaro yesterday featuring much of the same cast alongside the Konzerthausorchester. It was a pleasure to see the concert house’s neo-classical interior—an opulent post-war refurbishment—brought into my relief by Fischer’s concept. Rococo-dressed mannequins and wire-framed costumes (designs by György Kertész) were suspended from the gilded ceiling on metal grids, descending as the disguises which drive the opera’s class- and gender-bending comedy of errors. Figaro seizes the head of a model representing the count in his aria “Se vuol ballar,” only to dress him down to boxers; and the page Cherubino slips full of desire into the arms of a costume representing Susanna—externalizing the double-illusion of a woman playing a boy.

Fischer—who has sought to widen the house’s reach through new formats such as Espresso Concerts, public rehearsals and online video since becoming music director last season–stood casually upstage before the performance began, chatting with passers-by before raising his baton toward the back of the hall and launching into the overture. He conducted most of the performance seated to the edge of the second violins, with the orchestra arranged in a semi-circle around two platforms that served as focal points for the action. The singers, however, wove freely in and out of the orchestra from doors placed on either side of the stage. Eighteenth-century wigs were tossed around playfully, integrating Fischer and the musicians into the drama. The aesthetic risked on camp, however, and the exposed transition into the fourth act was more irritating than charming as stagehands fastened karabiners onto mannequins that would allow the Countess and Susanna to switch places and trick the Count. “It will only last another two or three minutes,” Fischer told the audience.

One forgave the setback once the music resumed. The orchestra has made tremendous strides under Fischer, now playing with renewed warmth and energy in the strings. His intuitive connection to Mozart’s emotional world emerged in graceful but playful phrasing, although there was an unfortunate tendency to rush into attacks. The cast displayed delightful emerging singers in roles which, as it happens, are best depicted by youthful performers. As the cunning servant Susanna, Laura Tatulescu anchored the evening with lush, expressive tone. She also conveyed the character’s feminine wiles with admirable comic timing. Hanno Müller-Brachmann, with a precocious, unforced bass-baritone and boyish charm, proved a fine partner as Figaro, although he is even stronger in German repertoire. The detailed characterization and well-sculpted tone of Rachel Frenkel in the role of Cherubino made for another stand-out. The seasoned mezzo Ann Murray and bass Andrew Shore were a memorable pair as Marcellina and Bartolo, Figaro’s long-lost parents, although Murray’s thespian approach seemed more tailored to a full staging. Roman Trekel brought subtle comedy to his portrayal of the Count, and Miah Persson—returning to an opera she has sung many times—inhabited the role of the Countess with natural aristocratic restraint. Norma Nahoun was a charming as Barbarina, the daughter of the gardener Antonio, here in a strong performance by Matteo Peirone.

The acoustics of the stage formation required some getting used to—inner voices at times jumped out unexpectedly, and the singers had to cut through an orchestra that surrounded them on all sides—but Fischer guided the musicians with unimposed authority. His fluid integration of scenic elements and flair for comedy remain a triumph. He managed to flesh out the characters of Mozart and Da Ponte in great detail, unencumbered by the gags that often drown out the action on opera stages. With three full-time houses, Berlin is of course not in need of more opera—and just across town, the Berlin Philharmonic can boast a far more entrenched tradition, a house with far superior acoustics, not to mention a level of international fame with which only one or two other orchestras on the planet can compete. But Fischer has succeeded in revitalizing the Konzerthaus with a fresh, organic—albeit quirky—creative impulse that remains blissfully impervious to outside influence.

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