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A View from the Pit

27 May 2020
Seated woman with man kneeling before her clasping hands intimate moment.

Take a trip down memory lane with WNO Orchestra’s Sub-Principal Trumpet player Martin McHale. In between taking part in WNO’s lockdown performances and tutoring, he explores the first time he came across The Marriage of Figaro and why it is now one of his favourite operas.

The Marriage of Figaro featured in 1980 my first year as a member of WNO and it soon became a personal favourite. As I write this little insight into the opera, I am aware that I might be breaking an unspoken rule and blurring the invisible boundary between art and artifice. However...bruit it not abroad, but The Marriage of Figaro is a very difficult work to play. If you can detach yourself from my polished prose, gentle reader, you may hear some distant guffawing from my colleagues. Let me rephrase that last sentence. The Marriage of Figaro is a very difficult work for the orchestra apart from the trumpets and timpani (Fear not, we were stretched to the limit in Vêpres…). Recently, we all watched open jawed, at Eliud Kipchoge’s marathon exploits, and although it is possibly a stretch to equate this with playing Figaro, the stamina required in the woodwind to play Susanna’s final aria, Dei Vieni with delicate dexterity after more than three hours is a remarkable achievement.

For the double reed players, the oboes and bassoons, the problem is not simply one of staying power. They have to factor in the very real practicalities of finding the right piece of cane for the job. Thick cane helps endurance while thin benefits the suppleness required to play Mozart’s delicate lines. Finding a reed that will do both jobs equally well is the balancing act these players face each performance. Nothing comes close though, to the magnificent Second Act finale in terms of endurance. Simplistically, the first violins merrily play the tune while the cellos and basses mark out the harmony. The engine room, consisting of the second violins and violas provide the energy to the texture with twenty minutes of stamina sapping figurations and string crossing of terrifying rapidity. 

Performances of Figaro can vary due to the gifts that individual performers bring; Bryn Terfel’s wily and street-wise assumption of the title role, Rebecca Evans’s poignant Countess and the effervescent Marie McLaughlin as Susanna come to mind. In the relatively minor roles, Robert Tear’s long experience on stage allowed him to bring a carefully crafted seediness to Don Basilio. With wonderful moments on every page of the score, it is difficult to pick a highlight, but for me there is a moment of matchless beauty in the Finale to Act Four. Figaro, having been duped by the Countess and Susanna, finds himself alone in the garden at twilight (Tutto e tranquillo e placido). In the pit, Mozart reaches back a decade, when he provided wind serenades for the Archbishop of Salzburg as, through the evening air, over a gently undulating strings, the woodwind softly intone a beguiling melody. Twelve glorious bars where time stands still, before we snap back into the action and imposters are unmasked, forgiveness is sought and bestowed and all ends happily.

Not a hint of the tragedy of the next episode made manifest by Milhaud in his La Mere Coupable; no hint even of a divorce. There is no gainsaying the contribution that the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte makes to the completed opera, but in the end it is the music that takes the plaudits. There are good composers and there are great composers; and then there is Mozart.