A combination of excellent ensemble and individual singing plus very good comic acting make Opera Queensland’s Marriage of Figaro an engaging and memorable night out, despite some disappointment with the production’s design.
It is of course a brilliant opera, which should be part of everyone’s musical experience, and I can recommend this version (co-produced with Opera Australia and the Welsh National Opera). To recommend is not to like everything in the show, but it is undoubtedly well worth seeing and enjoying. Director Neil Armfield’s concept is interesting and works beautifully in some respects while less successfully in others.
The brown paper bag set design seems one of those things where directors and designers get carried away with what may have seemed a good idea at the time. The festoons of brown all over the place are nothing but a depressing distraction, notwithstanding the supposed subtleties suggested in the program notes by Armfield (“a glow that reminded us of the sandstone of the Moorish palaces of Spain”). By contrast, the essentially traditional costumes are splendid in their range and variety and perhaps are better appreciated for their drab setting.
The squeezing of the entire first of the four acts into a narrow downstage area is unnecessarily constricting and artificial. It may well enable a speedy scene change to Act II’s countess’s boudoir, but that seems little enough reason.
Nor can we be too excited by some of Armfield’s interpretations. He goes for the asynchronous touch beloved of modern directors Susanna works an electric iron in the 18th century castle, the countess has an electric hair dryer, the weddings conclude with flash-lit photography. All tolerable I suppose, but not so his spin on the “Non piu andrai” song, where instead of concentrating on telling Cherubino he’s off to the army and that his dalliances with the girls are over, Figaro openly directs his teasing, and then anger, at the count, who stalks off with Figaro in pursuit. Sure, it’s not a bad idea to suggest that the count is a parallel target of the song, but Armfield’s approach runs counter to the subtlety of the servants’ and particularly Figaro’s rebellions against the aristocrats. And do we really need the howl from the young page at the close of the aria?
However, the boudoir scene, Act II, is absolutely the tops. This is the scene where Cherubino romances the countess and where the countess and Susanna disguise Cherubino, who hastily hides when the count appears and then changes places with Susanna and leaps out the window, to the consternation of the gardener, while Figaro is almost caught out trying confusedly to cover for everyone’s fibs. Local director Roger Press and his charges must be congratulated on a brilliantly executed scene, with plenty of pace and great comic effect.
Andrew Collis in the title role is the star of the performance, with a strong and pleasing baritone voice in combination with versatile acting. Tiffany Speight as his bride acts pertly and sings sweetly, while Michael Lewis ably depicts his sleaze factor as an aristocrat who perhaps senses that his class’s days of dominance are numbered.
Although appearing a little nervous in the role on opening night, Leanne Kenneally as the countess grows in assurance and acts well in depicting her confusion and mixed emotions. As well as successfully representing her sorrow at the count’s infidelity, she conveys her stirring interest in the cheeky and persistent Cherubino. The direction includes very nice touches during Cherubino’s famous “Voi che sapete” area. Caitlin Hulcup is very well cast and does a great job as the testosterone-charged page. The interaction between the pair foreshadows the little-known Beaumarchais sequel in which Cherubino does indeed have his way with the countess, who bears his child. (And sadly, Cherubino is to be killed in battle.) But that’s in a galaxy far away from the romps and fun of the action-packed day depicted in this opera.
The middle-aged minor nobility occupied with plotting against Figaro are nicely sung and acted by David Hibbard, Irene Waugh, Geoffrey Harris and Geoffrey Ashenden. Effectively amusing touches include Waugh’s astonishment at the discovery of her lost child and Hibbard’s instant attempt to slope off when the implications sink in. As the music master, Harris puts on a superb comic turn, especially in his frantic conducting of the chorus during the wedding celebrations and his direction of the clumsy photographer who ends up in the front stalls.
The orchestral work under Richard Gill is generally pleasing, despite occasional balance problems and a more muted sound than usual. There also seemed some problem in the transition from overture to the opening aria. The Opera Queensland chorus are up to their usual high standards, with members also contributing very well to the comedy in various cameo roles. Group singing is perhaps the highlight of this production, in the various duets and other combinations. The ensemble singing by soloists at the end of the final act is richly brilliant.
The program notes include an interesting analysis by Adrian Mourby of that sexual feudal right which has fascinated two centuries of theatre-goers, the droit de seigneur exposing it as, after all, nothing but an Enlightenment version of an urban myth.