The Marriage of Figaro

Music by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte (trans: Jeremy Sams)
Opera North
Lyric Theatre at The Lowry
to

One of the small, yet not so small, questions that has yet to be answered about the impact of 21st century technology on arts provision concerns the effect that live broadcasts from major houses, such as the New York Metropolitan Opera House, will have on doughty regional companies like Opera North.

True, announcements of the death of theatre at the grubby hands of film and TV proved to be “premature”. True also, there seems to be a good crowd in The Lowry’s Lyric Theatre tonight.

But this is Mozart’s Figaro, quite probably the greatest opera buffa ever written. And, to sound another note of caution, before pronouncing the heart of regional opera to be beating not fluttering, looking around me I see that I, a bloke pushing sixty, am one of the youngsters in the audience.

Leslie Travers’s set is one of the prime pleasures of this new production. A floral damask curtain lifts to reveal what might seem to be backstage—walls supported with props, bare and uninviting. Travers is revealing, literally but to good effect, the artifice behind the façade.

Once we step inside the Count's and Countess’s domain, the wallpaper shows torn and tattered, barely clinging to the walls, whilst the grand French windows are smeared and dirty. We are being presented with not just a marriage (the Count’s) but a regime based on deception and pretence and teetering on the brink of collapse.

The set is manoeuvred and manipulated by the cast in a series of quite wonderfully choreographed moments created by Kay Shepherd. The shenanigans of the household (nobles and servants alike) are energetically prefigured as Mozart’s amazing overture draws us in.

As the scene shifts from Figaro’s servants’ quarters into the Countess’s boudoir, the movement of the cast communicates with grace and poignancy the change in mood (from act 1 into act 2), setting the tone perfectly for a fine “Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro” (though this is an English translation of Da Ponte’s libretto) by Ana Maria Labin (Countess Almaviva).

The Lyric Theatre is not, sad to say, the singer’s friend. Its dead acoustic tends to muffle the best efforts of all but the most powerful voices. Alexander Shelley holds his orchestra in tight control and does his best to help the singers throughout, but the auditorium fights him all the way.

Jeremy Sams’s English libretto has some delightful content (great to hear the gardener describe Cherubino as having ‘buggered off!’) but could use more colour in key arias (his version of “Non piu andrai,” for example, lacks da Ponte’s sense of the macho teasing involved in such descriptions of military life; not much here to scare the life out of the young would-be lover).

There’s a lot of charm and humour in Jo Davies’s direction and, though Richard Burkhard doesn’t quite have the masculine charisma for a truly memorable Figaro, Silvia Moi’s Susanna works hard to lift the dynamic between the two. Quirijn de Lang’s Count Almaviva presents a commendably dislikable cocktail of pomposity and sleaze. Helen Sherman charms the birds out of the trees as the hormonally-overcharged Cherubino, while Ellie Laugharne seizes her moments well as a bold and cheeky Barbarina.

The closing tableau vivant has the contrite Count and the temporarily appeased Countess locked in a triangle with Cherubino. Those who know the path of the third element of Beaumarchais's trilogy will appreciate the cleverness and dramatic significance of this. It's a subtle and insightful decision.

It is to be hoped that opera fans will not see a need to choose between a large screen projection the Met’s Anna Netrebko viewed from comfy seats at £15 a head, and the distinct pleasures of supporting a very competent regional opera company (at up to four times that price). Opera North is doing its damnedest to make the case for their defence. 

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson