Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Even operas need sequels

In these days of increasingly high-numbered sequels to books, films and videogames, it's tempting to think that the temptation to revisit familiar characters is a singularly modern malaise to afflict the arts (videogames having a long and noble tradition, of course). However, there are lots of historical precedents, and last night we went to see one of them at the Mayflower Theatre.

Way back in the late 18th century, playwright Pierre Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy (OK, so the numbers didn't get too high in those days) of plays featuring the wily and comic character of Figaro (plus his sometime employer, Lord Almaviva, and Almaviva's wife, Rosine), the most famous of which are the The Barber of Seville and The Marriage of Figaro. As they were satires on the establishment, the plays were initially censored, then uproariously successful and then, in fairly short order, they were converted into operas.

Courtesy of C, I saw The Barber of Seville by composer Rossini (1816; actually a "remake", an earlier version having been done in 1782) a number of years ago. That was a brilliant, knock-about production by the Welsh National Opera, and my introduction to opera-as-farce. That was a really vivacious performance which, opera-novice that I am, made me think of a Shakespeare comedy set to music. But with laughs. Anyway, last night we took in the sequel, The Marriage of Figaro by Mozart (1786; so, actually, something of a "prequel" to Rossini).

In terms of plot, it picks up some years after the events of The Barber of Seville, focusing this time on Figaro's imminent marriage to Susanna, Rosine's maid. The crux of the play is that although Lord Almaviva has renounced his title's claim to the (purported) historical feudal tradition of droit de seigneur (the right to sleep with a bride on the night of her marriage), he'd like to make an exception for Susanna, much to the obvious opposition of both Figaro and Rosine. Much of the narrative takes the form of the plots that Figaro, Rosine and Susanna hatch to either distract Almaviva, or publicly expose his (hoped for) infidelity. There are, of course, a number of misunderstandings and strange subplots along the way that complicate these plans. But plot isn't really what's important at an opera (just as well in this case).

As a musical spectacle, TMoF was a lot of fun in parts. There are a number of rousing setpieces in the opera, although unlike TBoS I thought this one sagged a bit between these numbers. This surprised me a bit, since I tend to view Mozart as a bit more exciting as a composer, certainly for his orchestral work. I did think this might be because he didn't major in opera, but a quick check of WP suggests that he was far more than a dabbler. One advantage that Rossini's TBoS had over this opera was that it was written several decades later, so perhaps Rossini was able to learn a bit from Mozart's sagging. Or perhaps I'm just a musical ignoramous who can't recognise musical genius even when it's dangled right in front of me?

Continuing to be somewhat rude about TMoF, it's also a good 30 minutes too long - the third act finishes on the wedding, but there's a whole fourth act after that which could either be dispensed with (musically it's not all that exciting) or somehow distilled down to a coda to the wedding. Three hours and twenty minutes (plus interval) is pretty long for any seated event, and when things are sagging it can feel even longer. I can't, for instance, recall seeing a film of this length in a long time - cinema is frequently judged as overlong whenever it breaches the two hour barrier, let alone three hours.

In passing, although also performed by the Welsh National Opera, this production was immediately distinguished from the former by its use of late 19th/early 20th century (I think) costumes and settings. Given that the play centres itself around a (purported) Medieval aristocratic privilege, this seems a little incongruous.

Anyway, it was a great night out, but I was a little disappointed given that it was: (a) Mozart, and I expected a little better from him; and (b) coming after a great TBoS performance by the same company. Still, judged from the perspective of an infrequent opera-goer, it did the business. Perhaps just twenty minutes or so too much business.

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