Rough but Happy Figaro

8 Mar

The joy of The Marriage of Figaro is that it seems to provide an infinite variety of opportunities for directors to tell you something new.  It has to be a very poor, very brain-dead evening that gives you nothing.  The latest Opera North production, which I saw at the Theatre Royal in Newcastle, which I saw on 7th March, proved this yet again.  It was far from being a perfect evening but there were at least three points which made it worthwhile to be there.

The first was Quirin de Lang’s absolutely perfect handling of the discovery of Cherubino in Act I: it’s a gift of a moment, but I don’t think that I’ve seen it done so well – he picked up the covering, saw Cherubino, uses it to prove his point and then realises that Cherubino shouldn’t be there in the first place.  It was a gem of a moment.  The second came in Act III as Barbarina lets slip what the Count has been saying to her.  The look on the Countess’s face, the sheer shock and hatred that she felt there turned this into one of those moments that stopped your heart.  Finally, at the very end, the last image of the Countess and Cherubino bumping into each other alone, suggested all that is to come.

These were the great moments in what was an enjoyable but rather mixed evening.  We begin backstage as scenery is manipulated into position for the first scene.  The Almavivas have obviously fallen on hard times – the wallpaper is torn, the ceilings and staircases have plaster disappearing.  Not quite sure how this helps.  Nor why it seems to be raining for most of the time – the Count can’t possibly believe that Susanna would seriously invite him for a tryst in the garden in this weather.  There were irritations of direction.  Sitting at the side in the stalls, the armchair for Act I directly impedes your vision and the Count sits in it quite a lot with his back to the audience.  The way the stage is divided up for the first Act can’t help the sightlines of a lot of people and didn’t help us hear some of the singers.  For Deh vieni, Susanna is placed right at the side of the stage so that anyone sitting on that side of the theatre can’t see her and have to watch an entirely empty stage.  Why?  These are technical points that you’d hope a director that cares about the audience would iron out.

Aside from these points, Jo Davies’s production is traditional, avoids too much seriousness and heartbreak and gets the social nuances well – it’s set, probably, in the early/mid 20th century but, these days, that’s virtually period.  The acting of the recitatives is superb – the characters deliver them as if it were a play and the Countess/Susanna tension over Cherubino in Act II is palpable.  It’s not particularly political, definitely farcical and generally astute.  It’s sung in Jeremy Sams’s excellent revised translation and it’s always good to have a full house listening and laughing at the jokes.  It’s certainly an improvement on their previous version and I’d be happy to see it again.

Musically, I felt that it was more problematic.  Alexander Shelley’s conducting was perfectly decent (aside from a cruelly fast Voi che sapete that robbed it of all its elegance and charm) but I wasn’t clear that he was particularly challenging his orchestra and you felt that they weren’t particularly involved.  Ensemble wasn’t great and, as an interpretation, this didn’t get anywhere interesting or even particularly involving.  Shouldn’t Opera North be aiming a bit higher for a new production?

There were some good performances.  I liked Richard Burkhardt’s Figaro very much indeed, particularly as he became darker in the last act.  I prefer a more revolutionary approach to Non piu andrai but he is a great stage presence and his personality held much of the performance together and he sang his Act IV aria with just the right bitter cynicism – he’s someone I’m taking increasingly seriously as a singer.  He had a very fine foil in de Lang’s Count whose acting of this stupid arrogant airhead was entirely convincing and very funny.  He tended to speak rather than sing the dialogue and his voice felt just a bit light for the role, albeit in a difficult acoustic.

Ana Maria Labin sang the Countess.  I was hugely impressed by her really gorgeous, creamy voice that is just about perfect for this role.  She did a really lovely Dove sono and acted the role impressively.  Of all the cast, she was only one who seemed to do interesting things musically. She’ll go far, I think.  Sylvia Moi was an attractive Susanna who acted the role really well and who sang nicely enough in a soubrettish sort of way.  Deh vieni made no impression.

Interesting that three of those four principals did not have English as their first language.  I was hugely impressed by their understanding and delivery of the text – the words really counted – but the vowel sounds gave them away.  Ought Opera North be going abroad for this opera?  Were there really no British singers?

Helen Sherman was an attractive Cherubino who didn’t particularly convince me that she was a boy, but displayed a strong, confident voice and boundless energy.  Gaynor Keeble was a really fine Marcellina – nicely acted, a good personality and good singing.  Dean Robinson seemed over-parted as Bartolo and his first aria made no impression.  Joseph Shovelton was a good, clear Basilio and Jeremy Peake made a really excellent, convincing Antonio – one of the best that I’ve seen.

I enjoyed myself.  As in any good Figaro there were those moments when I suddenly realised that I was smiling and that I was engaging with the acting and the drama and wanting to hear more.  It was alive, thoughtful, intelligent.  The audience had a lovely time and was really enthusiastic at the end.  I just felt that, musically, this could have been quite a lot better and quite a lot more interesting and I was disappointed that Opera North wasn’t able to produce more of the goods.  I’d hate to feel that, just because they were doing a guaranteed box office hit, they felt that they could cut corners.

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