In advance of this performance, I was sceptical. It sounded gimmicky to me, and I've seen too many neophyte directors let loose on opera, to usually disastrous results. I could not have been more wrong. This is a triumph, and despite being in theory semi-staged knocks many recent fully staged productions in London out of the ballpark. Add to that one of the finest musical performances of opera the Festival has seen in recent times and you have a special evening.
The performance was directed by conductor Ivan Fischer. He places the orchestra on stage grouped around a central podium, with a walkway across the stage separating some strings from the rest of the ensemble. Some attempts are made to include the orchestra in the action, but generally they simply play. Yet they somehow contrive to emanate this feeling that they are part of a narrative, even though (apart from the odd wig) they remain in black tie for the duration while the singers are changing costumes and indulging in a fair bit of stage business. Perhaps the only thing to say about it is that there is some strange performance alchemy at work here.
The staging itself is filled with wit, and has the necessary sense of farce – with doors opening and closing, and people hiding where they aren't supposed to be. But it also shows great care in the interactions between the various characters. All the principals give utterly believable performances, both as individuals and in terms of their relationships to one another. Again, this performance was far superior to many fully staged opera productions where directors seem utterly incapable either of conjuring believable characters or managing intelligent interactions between them. If I was going to be really picky, it could be argued that there is the odd moment of over-busyness – the end of Act 2 is the obvious case in point. But with one or two exceptions, to my mind, pretty much every decision works.
The successful staging is partnered with superb musical performances. Anchoring everything are Fischer and his Budapest Festival Orchestra. He conducts the score with a fine sense of drama, and pretty perfect tempi – knowing both when to drive matters forward and when to linger, and drawing out many moments of both humour and pathos in partnership with the singers. He also, from where I was sitting in the Dress Circle, achieved an excellent sound balance between singers and orchestra – a tough ask when the orchestra are on stage, and something I haven't always known visiting groups to achieve in the Festival Theatre. The ensemble of principals is uniformally magnificent, both as individuals and in terms of how they blend together (Susanna and Marcellina's duet comes immediately to mind here). Over the course of the evening I laughed a lot, I was moved, and when Miah Persson's Countess forgave her husband at the end it was very powerful.
It was evident from social media after the first performance that some people really disliked the semi-staging. For me it was an absolute triumph. That it has the merit of enabling you to do opera cheaply is only a related virtue. The show is a reminder of what I often go on about on this blog, but which so many modern opera directors seem to disregard, that the first things to get right are character, and basic management of personnel on stage. Fischer succeeds triumphantly in both respects. The whole evening should be an object lesson to the concept obsessed, overly busy, ineffective personnel management perpetrated by many rivals. If this show tours near you I urge you to pick up a ticket.