The Marriage of Figaro

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Text by Lorenzo da Ponte in a new translation by Michael Irwin
English Touring Opera Gala Theatre, Durham, and touring
(2004)

In spite of the popular misconception, the days of opera consisting of fat men and women making grand gestures as they stand motionless singing are long gone. If anyone doubts that, they should make the effort to see this production by English Touring Opera. Unfortunately they don't have many chances left: on 28th and 29th May they're at the Perth Theatre, and then, on 1st and 2nd June, at the Theatre Royal, Bath, where the tour, which began on 11th March at the Hackney Empire, ends.

This production is a real joy. The setting has been moved to be, we are told, Spanish colonial and so many of the servants (Figaro, Susanna, Marcellina and Bartolo) are black, but why it was felt necessary to come up with an excuse for using black performers in these more enlightened times, I really don't know. I didn't find out the reason until after the performance and all finding out did was draw attention to something that I - and, as far as I could see, the rest of the audience - had just accepted.

Certainly the lighting (a beautiful job by Aideen Malone) did suggest the tropics but Joanna Parker's set didn't. In fact, as one man near to me muttered before the start, "Set by Ikea!", and it did look rather like that. Four double louvre doors (which could double as windows) on castors were built into what did look like the "bare bones" Ikea style of blonde wood shelving. These were cleverly moved around to create all the different scenes. It was a super set which worked very well and needed no justification, just like the casting of black singers.

But back to the performances, and let's start with the acting. The quality was, I suggest, as good as is possible in an opera - let's face it: the nature of the beast militates against total naturalism - but I was impressed by Donna Bateman as Susanna and, in particular, Catrin Johnsson's Cherubino. This was not a woman dressed as a teenage boy, but a real teenage boy, and when (s)he was disguised as a woman, (s)he was a boy disguised as a woman. Beautifully done!

As one would expect of a company of the standard of ETO, the singing was excellent, with no weaknesses that my somewhat untutored ear could detect - except perhaps that just occasionally the orchestra's fortissimi were just a little too much, drowning out the singers in the odd phrase here and there. It wasn't enough to spoil things but it was noticeable.

And there were so many highlights: the Countess (Julie Unwin)'s aria Dove sono i bei momenti, which drew cries of "Bravo!" from the audience, Cherubino's Voi che sapete, Figaro (Rodney Clarke)'s Non più andrai (a witty performance, this) - in fact, I could go on at some length. Suffice it to say that the almost full house at the Gala was treated to a fine Figaro which they clearly greatly enjoyed. And so did I!

Reviewer: Peter Lathan