Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is undoubtedly a masterpiece of the operatic world; a piece of theatre so well crafted, comic and heartfelt, it’s almost impossible for it to be received badly. English National Opera’s first revival of Fiona Shaw’s 2011 production goes above and beyond what is required to make this opera a success and, in fact, presents an interpretation fresh, visceral and full of talent.
Not half as funny as it can be, Shaw’s dark production is instead a much more subtle take on Beaumarchais’s story. A revolving stage of translucent walls emphasises all the characters’ mistrust and the hidden corners for eavesdropping all around the Count’s household. It’s a very sinister outlook. It took a couple of numbers for the piece to settle, with David Stout in particular taking a little time to get into the rhythm of things before eventually producing a very charming and well sung Figaro. At times the singers and orchestra came apart, though through no fault of the vibrant and clear conducting of Jaime Martin, so no excuses.
Mary Bevan’s Susanna is witty and beautifully sung, an intelligent characterisation and a joy to watch. In contrast Sarah-Jane Brandon as the Countess Almaviva has an initial vulnerability and innocence that develops into a backbone just in time for all of Act 4. Her singing is sweet and tender, not something we always associate with a Countess; however nothing about this production is by-the-book, instead it’s much darker. A very convincing Cherubino was performed by the young Samantha Price, a debut for her in the role. Special praise should be given to the supporting cast of Colin Judson as Don Basilio, a voice with great diction, and Lucy Schaufer as Marcellina. The latter deserves great credit for a wonderful duet (‘Via, Resti Servita’) with Bevan. Last, but by no means least, Benedict Nelson as the Count is captivating and raw, full of lust and anger; his singing is gorgeous, warm and rich in a shimmering baritone.
Whenever I see this opera I am astounded by Mozart’s Act 2 finale, a real musical and dramatic marvel, full of some of the most heartrending moments and hilarious happenings – how could anyone fail with such material? This production is bold, taking some very serious themes of adultery and cuckoldry (represented by the many bull skulls and matador reference throughout the opera) for its basis. Again, Jeremy Sans as librettist requires great praise in producing a very witty and easily communicated translation. This is a production for Mozart lovers as well as people new to this wonderful art form.
The Marriage of Figaro is playing The London Coliseum (English National Opera) until 23 November. For more information and tickets, see the English National Opera website. Photo by Sarah Lee.