Last Updated on September 28, 2021
The Marriage of Figaro 2020, English National Opera – London Coliseum.
If you’ve seen Amadeus, there are parts of the Marriage of Figaro that will be strikingly familiar. As Salieri describes the Countess forgiving her husband, he recognises that Mozart’s music manages somehow to convey the depth of human emotions in a way that makes him a genius. With glorious music and fast-moving, complex plot, The Marriage of Figaro is an opera that can make you laugh as much as make you cry.
Making the story truly accessible for today’s audience is a challenge which Joe Hill-Gibbins has ably met in his new production for English National Opera. A theatre director by background, this production of The Marriage of Figaro for 2020 is staged in conjunction with Oper Wuppertal and is his first main stage production for English National Opera. Without the constraints of ‘how an opera should be done’ Hill-Gibbins takes the plot and uses the staging to make everything come to life for a contemporary audience. There’s a fine balance between losing the original sense of the Opera and losing a new Opera audience. This production works brilliantly in that sense, injecting just the right amount of modernity and with an English language libretto that had us all laughing, smiling and crying at the right times.
The Marriage of Figaro is a complex tale of love. Figaro is preparing to marry Susanna but the nuptials are interrupted by a series of trysts. Figaro’s past comes back to haunt him in the form of Marcellina, a former lover who has Dr Bartolo, a lawyer trying to force Figaro to marry her. Meanwhile, Count Almaviva is pursuing Susanna, hoping to impose the droit de seigneur and sleep with Susanna before she marries. The Count’s wife is desolate that she has lost his affection. So, Figaro and Susanna plot and try to arrange for Cherubino the page to disguise himself as Susanna and trap the Count. Marcellina’s pursuit of Figaro comes to nothing because she spots a birthmark on his arm and realises that he’s actually her son from a one night stand with Bartolo – at which point she and Bartolo decide to marry. That leaves just the Count to deal with…he’s trapped by a series of disguises and eventually forced to beg forgiveness from the Countess. They all end up with the right partner and the curtain falls after a whirlwind of mistaken identities.
The new production uses simple devices and an ingenious staging to make everything fall into place like clockwork. A white wall with four doors is put to great use during the overture – a real insight into what is to come.
Figaro was played ably by ENO Harewood Artist Božidar Smiljanić making his role debut. Great characterisation, a little more power would have perfected his mellifluous rendition of the role.
His wife to be, Susanna, was played by Louise Alder – a beautiful lyric soprano who really came into her own in Part II.
Elizabeth Watts as the Countess sang with passion and power. The Countess has two particularly beautiful arias, Porgi Amor (O love grant some relief) and Dove Sono (where are those cherished moments). The first had a few strange moments and Watt’s version seemed to be angry rather than lamenting her husband’s infidelity. I’ve cried through both these arias (for the right reasons) in the past and despite the most exquisite voice, the emotion simply didn’t work for me last night.
Count Almaviva played by Johnathan McCullough was jealous, lascivious and yet sensitive. Excellent acting and singing – Crudel! perchè finora (Cruel woman why do you make me wait) with Susanna was particularly well sung.
And, Cherubino, played by Hanna Hipp was endearingly cheeky, loveable and naughty.
Marcellina (Susan Bickley) and Dr Bartolo (Andrew Shore) were well matched while Colin Judson as Don Basilio had the audience in fits of laughter with his cockney spiv characterisation. Barbarina was played beautifully as a goth-wildchild by ENO Harewood Artist Rowan Pierce and L’ho perduta, me meschina (I have lost it, poor me) was a highlight for me.
A strong chorus and for the most part tidy orchestra conducted by Kevin John Edusei complemented a strong cast.
This is a staging of a great opera that really entertains. I’d be happy to take a newcomer to opera to this Marriage of Figaro and suspect I’d come away with a convert. And, it’s a production that for me stands out and will be remembered (in the right sort of way!)
The Marriage of Figaro is a co-production with Oper Wuppertal
St Martin’s Lane,
London WC2N 4ES.