Family Matters

Librettist: Amanda Holden. Composers: Helen Chadwick, Pete Flood, Cheryl Francis-Hoad, Mike Henry, James Olsen, and John Webb
Presented by Tête à Tête
Traverse, Edinburgh
(2004)

A friend of mine says the problem with translating Opera into English is that it means an English-speaking audience can understand what's going on. However, Family Matters proves two things: first, that just because the audience can understand the language of the material doesn't make the words intelligible, and secondly, that when one finally sorts out exactly what's happening, and to whom, it isn't necessarily a bad thing.

Family Matters is the new opera by Tête à Tête. A quick primer in the story's history, as presented by the programme: it's an updated version of Beaumarchais' La Mère Coupable (The Guilty Mother) (1792) and is the third in the trilogy of "Figaro" plays - also known "as the sources for Rossini's Barber of Seville and Mozart's Marriage of Figaro."

Unfortunately, there seem to be implements from this earlier age that don't quite fit - or aren't quite made to. The most notable amongst these is the costuming of Mr. Fitzroy's (Omar Ebrahim) "personal assistant" (read: servant) Figaro (Aris Nadiran), who, in a tri-corne hat, seems to be wearing the dress of a servant from Beaumarchais' day. Since the rest of the production takes place in 1992, amidst putting greens, cartoon character t-shirts, and slide projectors, it's difficult to figure out exactly why Figaro's traditional costume has been preserved.

Other decisions on the part of the production team are easier to understand once one takes the time to look through the production - specifically, the practice in the first act of writing what at first appear to be random names on the sides of boxes used in the set (the family having just moved into their new home). Because of the way in which Tête à Tête engineered this show, a total of six operatic composers collaborated in putting together the final product, each writing several songs for the production. To highlight this, and let the audience know exactly who has composed each song of the first act, as boxes are unpacked they reveal the names of whichever composer wrote the song being sung at the time. It's an interesting device, but it would have been nice if a way could have been found to continue this trend in the second act.

The first act is mainly concerned with introducing the characters and the ridiculous situation they've been put in, thanks to the infidelities of both Mr. Fitzroy and his wife Rosa (Adey Grummet). There's a component to the plot where Fitzroy's business advisor, Burgess (Robert Burt,) tries to trick the family's patriarch out of what is, apparently, a considerable fortune - but without the political edge of bourgeois vs. nobility, which would have been a huge concern in Beaumarchais' time, this part of the plot seems to lose importance.

The song "Rosa Reminisces" (by Helen Chadwick) is undoubtedly the most engaging song of the first act. Setting, music, and voice come together in this piece, which uses memory, longing, and laughter (the audience's) to inform us of Rosa's affair in the early 1970s. In act two, Pete Flood's "Leo and Flora plan a new future" (Leo and Flora being played by Darren Abrahams and Sarah Jillian Cox, respectively) is well-performed and appealing.

As the villain of the piece, Burt is delightfully slimy, but he never quite reaches a point of being truly menacing - and is ultimately revealed as a fake and a fool by the (politically incorrect) device of being revealed as wearing a toupee. Meanwhile, despite Nadiran's powerful voice and largely because he's the only one not wearing modern dress, Figaro still seems like some kind of ghost, haunting the Fitzroy family, not quite allowing the audience to let go of the baggage of Beaumarchais' play and become completely immersed in Tête à Tête's production.

In addition to its Nottingham and Edinburgh dates, "Family Matters" will also play March 13th (Bury St Edmunds), 17th (Totnes), 24th (Leicester), 28th (Hereford) and 30th (Canterbury), 2004.

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Reviewer: Rachel Lynn Brody