Le Nozze di Figaro - Royal Opera House, 2 July 2008
I usually prefer to go to shows on opening night. On the downside, there may be little problems that will get ironed out later on, and first night nerves may mean singers aren't at their technical best. But the Royal Opera House generally allocates enough rehearsal time to make 'settling down' redundant.
The real difference between the first show and the later ones is that performers are always conscious of walking a tightrope between triumph and failure, and the fear of tanking it first time round can introduce a frisson that may not be recaptured in later shows. Anyone who's seen the difference between a final rehearsal and the opening show will know exactly what I mean.
This night was mid-run, and although every aspect of the performance ran as slick as greased owl pewp, there was an indefinable lack of sparkle. That's not to say it it was in any way flawed or disappointing, just easier to admire than to love.
As far as individual performances went, it was yet another occasion this season that the bus pass brigade have snaffled the performing honours from the hot young thangs. Tonight it was Robin Leggate's deliciously camp Don Basilio, Robert Lloyd's gravely comic Bartolo and Ann Murray's feisty Marcellina who made the most impact.
Kishani Jayasinghe's spirited Barbarina could have been up there with them and further, but her otherwise lusciously creamy voice developed a scratchy cast towards the end. Nothing more than a touch of tiredness I hope - not only does she perk up every production I've seen her in, however small her part, she also has the makings of a truly memorable voice.
The big revelation was Anna Bonitatibus. She's already shown her versatility recently in London in the poles-apart roles of Zerlina at the Barbican and the low-mezzo Medoro in Handel's Orlando at the ROH. And here she made an utterly convincing Cherubino, all knock knees and unmet eyes. Her crystalline vibrato-free tone was convincingly boyish, definitively Mozartian, and her Voi che sapete was the moment of the night.
She outshone Aleksandra Kurzak's sparky Susanna and Barbara Frittoli's dignified Countess, even though they were perfectly judged, and evenly enough matched for the element of conspiratorial sisterhood to ring true.
I warmed more to Peter Mattei's baffled and put-upon Count than Ildebrando D'Arcangelo's manipulative Figaro, despite D'Arcangelo's dense velvety ear-caressing tone. That's partly a function of David McVicar's subtly dark production, which plays with the audience's sympathies in a rather more even-handed way than usual.
Superficially, it's conventional enough for the fustiest of audiences, with its period look and very literal adherence to text. Although it doesn't skip any of the comedy (all of which is genuinely funny here, not remotely teeth-gritting), he doesn't shy from exposing the self interest of the protagonists at every moment either, and the undercurrent of rumbling discontent, the lower orders rattling the bars of their cage, is more than usually apparent.
Talking of bars, I was seriously impressed that certain thirsty orchestra members managed to survive the 90 minute second half without a rest break after their copious interval refreshments at the White Lion. But then again, perhaps it contributed to the relaxed, unhurried sound Charles Mackerras drew from them. Despite his unrelentingly furious pace, there was wit and charm in abundance, and the finely-nuanced response of the orchestra does them great credit.
It says a lot for production standards that the only blemished performance was canine. The Count's 'hunting dog' (though he looked more like a slipper-chewer to me) entered tail-first, tugged at the leash for his minute on stage, and danced a circle of joy the second he was released back.
I do love animals, especially with gravy, but as ever if [insert composer] had really wanted a [insert species] in [insert opera], don't you think he would have written a part for one?