The Marriage of Figaro
Mozart and da Ponte, in a new translation written and directed by Tony Britten
Music Theatre London at the Drill Hall
It was good to see a full theatre for the first, Sunday afternoon performance. Before the lights went down I couldn't help overhearing a couple behind me wondering if "the critics" would look down their noses at a modern version of Figaro - suggesting to me that some critics can be a bit snobbish about departures from tradition. Well, this particular critic was delighted, especially as the musical values were not compromised in any way, and the clever new translation fitted the music like a glove.
So, in this version, instead of the usual Count and Countess we are told the story of a lascivious Tory MP, Sir Michael Clark (Julian Forsyth), and his neglected wife Rosina (Mary Lincoln), the setting being their stately home in the country. Figaro (Nigel Richards) is their cheeky Cockney odd-job man, Susanna (Kathleen Schueppert) their pert American maid. Basilio (Stephen Ashfield), Bartolo (Simon Masterton-Smith) and Marcellina (Rosamund Shelley) are all political aides, wearing the intimidatingly smart suits that political aides tend to wear. The West Country gardener Antonio (Simon Masterton-Smith again) is still the gardener, but in modern overalls and ear protectors, and carrying a hugely long electric strimmer. Cherubino (Melanie Gutteridge) is convincingly boy-like with jeans, teeshirt, baggy shirt, sneakers, gamin hairstyle and hands-in-pockets teenage slouch. The only omission I could spot was the character of Barbarina, the gardener's daughter (whom I played once myself). In fact, the plot didn't seem to suffer a bit from the absence of her desperate hunt in the dark garden for her cousin Susanna's lost brooch - to me it was always an inexplicable part of the story anyway, but worth it of course for the lovely plaintive aria!
The new libretto is full of present-day references and political satire: a Newsnight interview with Jeremy Paxman (of whom Sir Michael is, quite understandably, terrified), a Tory party leadership election, the Garrick Club, a pornographic website, mobile phones, text messages, laptops, emails, and cadet training in Wales for Cherubino. And, thanks to some very clear diction from all the singers, very few words are lost. (In the big ensemble pieces it's always difficult to follow the words because everyone is given something different to sing, as required by the plot, but I found it rather pleasant in these instances to "channel hop" from one singer to another.)
Only one singer was a little disappointing in places - there were some flat notes in the "Dove Sono" aria - but a change of technique could soon remedy this. I can sympathise, for this beautiful and deceptively simple-sounding aria has a high tessitura, and the long notes require enormous stamina to sustain - I've tried it myself, and rapidly run out of steam. But, as various singing teachers have told me, it's a case of mind over matter: if you imagine yourself floating lightly down onto to the note, rather than pushing painfully up to it, the tuning can be corrected.
There were also a few ragged moments when the orchestra and singers got briefly out of synch, but I'm sure this will have been remedied by now. The orchestra sits high up on a platform behind the singers, and consists of just six valiant players covering all the string, woodwind and brass requirements, plus the conductor at an electronic keyboard.
So, well done Music Theatre London - this is a highly entertaining show, full of lively action and beautiful music. It's a great way of introducing opera to anyone who is wary of this supposedly "high art" genre; it's also great fun for those who already love opera, to see one of Mozart's greatest creations done in a refreshing, unpretentious way. I can thoroughly recommend it.
"The Marriage of Figaro" runs until 8th June
Reviewer: Gill Stoker