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The Theater Basel has been chosen by Opernwelt magazine “Opera House of the Year” both in 2009 and 2010. Since this distinction has never been bestowed upon the Deutsche Oper, the Deutsche Staatsoper, the Bayerische Staatsoper or the Wiener Staatsoper, I reckon that the quality of the ensemble, chorus and orchestra may not be the key criterion. The Swiss opera house has reached the news with some controversial productions, particularly Calixto Bieito’s Aida.

In their Japanese tour, Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro has been chosen for performances in Aichi, Toyama, Tokyo and Shiga. Elmar Goerden’s 2010 production does confirm the Theater Basel’s repution for theatrical values. It is hardly what one would call Regietheater – the action is updated to our days and the story is told more or less as Mozart and da Ponte would have explained it. But – and this is a big “but” – the director really took the pains of trying to explain who these people on stage are. There are many insightful little touches: the room Susanna and Figaro are moving in is a nursery that has never been used; the Countess has probably ever been bipolar, but has gone worse since her baby’s death; the Count has been shut out in her morning process and finally given up; Figaro and Susanna’s wedding exposes their masters’ dead-end marriage and is dealt with as a marital problem by Count and Countess Almaviva. The fact that these masters are oppressed by a traumatic event makes their oppression more difficult to repel:  Susanna says to herself “Please fogive me for lying to someone who is really looking for love” when she is pretending to accept the Count’s advances, for she here knows she is playing with the feelings of a grieving father and estranged husband. If there is anything in the concept which does not feel right is the fact that the Count’s role deserved a little bit more consideration from the director. For instance, when he sings Vedrò, mentr’io sospiro, frustration could be more evident than wrath – the keywords being mentr’io sospiro. He is declaring he is miserable – and that is not a small detail.

To make things better, Goerden’s staging is not just a concept – it really works on stage. Characters are very well defined, their course of action is continuous and coherent even in ensembles and everything is done in a natural and convincing way. Considering those are ensemble singers, it is curious that the guest “star”, Carmela Remigio, is very much in the core of this staging. I cannot say how much is her own contribution, but I have found her Countess outstandingly convincing in her confrontation with the Count in act II. Actually, this evening it made more sense than… ever. I had seen this Italian soprano in Damiano Michieletto’s Don Giovanni in Florence and there too she proved to be a compelling actress.

The musical aspects of this performance were far less inspiring. Presuming that I’ve heard their A-team (I don’t really think so…), the Basel Sinfonietta and the house chorus are quite sub par. Although maestro Giuliano Betta provided clarity and animated tempi in plenty, strings lacked a distinctive sound and were not terribly precise, in any case nothing appalling as French horn proved to be. Also, synchrony between soloists and orchestra was quite problematic, an overbusy fortepiano continuo making things difficult in recitatives too. At least this evening, the conductor seemed to have not a very good ear for singers, undermining predictable breath pauses and rushing them in moments where they (and the audience) expected them to take some time to convey their point.

The cast itself left more than something to be desired in terms of singing. Remigio can produce clear and stylish Mozartian lines, but seems to find that bothersome. She undersings in ensembles, resorts to acting-with-the-voice when she can and is often vehement rather than persuasive. For instance, while in the duettino with Susanna she proved to be a capable Mozart singer, Porgi, amor lacked poise (but not a broken heart). Dove sono was not truly gracious, but had some beautiful mezza voce. However, she “sold” her Countess with the conviction with which she delivered her words. Often when I found her gusty or sour or just harsh, the text actually made more sense that way (if not always the music…). A thought-provoking, capable but hardly ideal performance.

Maya Boog (Susanna) too knows her text, always has the dramatic action in sight and ultimately does not let down when Susanna music becomes “difficult”, but her soprano is seriously unfocused, sometimes in the verge of breathiness. Franziska Gottwald (Cherubino) has a beautiful voice, the low register particularly irresistible, and probably offered the best singing this evening. Her mezzo has some colorless patches and she can sound quite anonymous now and then. In any case, the raw material for a great Mozart singer is there. Christopher Bolduc (the Count)’s baritone lacks some volume and is a bit generic in tone (and he has to work on his Italian) and yet he acquitted himself in the stretta of his aria far more commendably than many more interesting singers.  His Figaro, Evgeny Alexev sometimes produces Hermann Prey-like sounds, but is mostly throaty and/or nasal.

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