Kita-ku is not one of Tokyo’s fashionable neighborhoods and most tourists never go there. It’s district hall has a 1,300-seat theatre called Sakura Hall, where a collaboration with the Japanese period-instrument orchestra Les Boréades has brought about a yearly concert since 1995 with foreign guest musicians, featuring works ranging from Rameau’s Hyppolite et Aricie to Gluck’s Les Pèlerins de la Mecque. This year, they return to Mozart with Le Nozze di Figaro (in 2011, there was Così fan Tutte and, in 2004, there was Idomeneo with tenor John Elwes, a CD of which has been released).
Conductor and violinist Ryo Terakado is a key name in the Japanese HIP scene and has performed with every Japanese artist in this repertoire you can think of. I have, for instance, recognized some members of Masaato Suzuki’s Bach Collegium Japan on stage today. His approach to Mozart is hardly meant to cause any revolutionary impression. On the contrary, it seems exclusively informed with the intent of making this score clear, spontaneous and theatrical. Tempi were flowing, but not rushed, accents sounded natural and harsh sonorities were not seen as an expressive tool. Although Les Boréades is a very decent orchestra, it is no Les Musiciens du Louvre: strings are a bit on the thin side, the brass section is bumpy and woodwind could be little bit more in the foreground. I don’t know the hall acoustics, but I have the impression that singers had too much advantage on the orchestra too. And we’re speaking of a semi-staged performance with instruments on stage. In any case, I would be curious to see what Terakado could do with a more technically adept team.
I have the impression that Mozart would expect someone closer to Klara Ek than Kiri Te Kanawa in the role of the Countess Almaviva. Hers is a light, dulcet voice incapable of an ugly sound throughout its range. I had seen her before as a thoroughly lovely Romilda in a production of Handel’s Serse in Kopenhagen. Today, her Porgi, amor was sung with the spontaneity of a song one would sing to oneself, but I guess we’ve become too used to hear some like Te Kanawa making it an example of sublime. She was happier when the role’s tessitura was higher and offered an exemplary Dove sono, in which she proved capable of some shading. Roberta Mameli is the prove that a great Susanna has to have brains first – and then a good voice. Her voice is not devoid of charm – it comes in one pleasant bell-toned quality with enough body but very little tonal variety. If she could produce true mezza voce and allow her low notes to blossom properly, she could have a career as a Mozart singer, for she masters the style and is musicianship incarnated. What makes her Susanna so special, however, is her understanding of the art of Italian declamation. Whoever had the opportunity to attend a theatre performance in Italy knows that this country has a highly formalized theatrical tradition. You can close your eyes and guess who’s the damsel in distress, who’s prince charming, who’s the bad guy, who’s the damsel’s father et al only by the way they speak. Ms. Mameli’s Susanna is deeply imbued of buffo tradition and her recitatives are an exquisite concoction in which you can find thousands of information about who is Susanna and what she is doing at that precise moment. Better – she can retain this ability in her arias and ensembles without any sacrifice to vocal line. Even better – she is an excellent actress with a three-dimensional view of her role. This Susanna is clearly a servant, she obviously is in love with her fiancé, she evidently resists the Count and enjoys the distinction of being allowed in the Countess’s privacy. Most of all, she likes to think she is cleverer than everyone else. In the act II finale, she makes it clear that her greatest surprise there was not that Figaro could prefer an older woman, but simply the fact that someone could have finally fooled her. Later on, she used every little word in Deh vieni, non tardar to allure, to seduce not only Figaro, but everyone in that theatre. I have seen and heard great singers as Susanna, some of them had superior voices, but Roberta Mameli simply offered me the most completely interesting performance in this role in my experience. Bravissima.
As Mutsumi Hatano (Cherubino) has fallen unexpectedly ill and become completely hoarse, our Marcellina, Yuko Anazawa, had to dub her from behind the orchestra. Ms. Anazawa has a lovely, fruity voice and, nervous as she was by having to deal with previously unrehearsed recitatives, offered charming accounts of both Cherubino arias and a quite impressive rendition of her own aria, with extremely clear divisions. If she solves the lack of focus around the passaggio (and improves her Italian), she could have an important career.
Fulvio Bertini is a very funny actor, but his light and clear baritone is often too discrete for the role of the Count. Jun Hagiwara’s baritone too is light, but richer in harmonics (except in his high notes, when it is well focused nonetheless). His is an ideal voice for baroque music, but his Figaro was pleasant in its agreeable tonal quality and congeniality (his Italian too deserves some improvement). Makoto Sakurada has an international career in baroque repertoire and his cameo appearance here meant that we could hear Don Basilio’s aria, probably the best rendition I have ever heard (ok, the competition is generally a tenor near retirement…).
Considering this was only semi-staged with improvised costumes and props, it was amazing how much depth some singers were able to find here. Other than the above mentioned Mameli and Bertini, Ek never forgot that the Countess is a very young woman and portrayed her role’s essential dilemma: she fell in love with the Lindoro from Il Barbiere di Seviglia and ended up married to the Count Almaviva from Le Nozze di Figaro. I like too the fact that she doesn’t act as if she would become the title role in La Mère Coupable, because this is not the character portrayed by Mozart.