To the west a smiling moon and a shining Venus looked down approvingly, as did Jupiter, a “bringer of jollity”, in the east. In the distance tiny illuminated aircraft glided in to land at Eagle Farm airport. The stage was set for the Brisbane Festival’s “opera under the stars”, a free open-air performance of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro at Eagle Farm racecourse.
Baffled punters heading home late from having their fortunes made or lost by the gallopers may have been perplexed by the sounds emanating from the track, while an audience of thousands filled the venerable St Leger stand and formed a human blanket on the spacious grass, with picnics and wines to hand.
Initial auguries were not good. Recorded music of a distinctly non-Mozartian flavour filled the air in the run-up to the performance, even pulsating relentlessly as the musicians tuned their instruments. Perhaps this was the explanation for a less than distinguished rendition of the famous overture, little helped and indeed more likely caused by amplification which favoured the bass and distorted the brass.
Even the most charitable observer could not describe the production as flawless, but fortunately the most noticeable lapses were earlier in the piece and quickly forgotten. At times several performers had different ideas from conductor Nicholas Braithwaite as to pace, and it was clear the production would have benefited from more rehearsal time. But all in all the audience was treated to a feast of Opera Queensland talent, with many fine performances, together with good backing from the Queensland Orchestra.
In the role of Figaro, Andrew Collis gave his usual reliable and assured performance throughout. So too did Sarah Crane as Suzanna. Douglas McNicol was a very solid and convincing Count, and Gaynor Morgan splendid as his Countess, with a particularly lovely “Dove sono” aria. Veteran bass baritone Donald Shanks as Dr Bartolo sang a disappointing “revenge” aria, with imperfect intonation, although he later provided a firm anchor in ensembles.
Hayley Sugars gave us a very good Cherubino, with lovely depth of tone in her beautiful “Voi che sapete”. I also liked Roxane Hislop’s Marcellina. Bradley Daley was a beautifully sonorous and mischief-making Don Basilio, while Virgilio Marino added nicely to the tenor team as Don Curzio. Guy Booth, complete with flowerpot (one of the few props in this concert performance) was a fitting Antonio.
Meanwhile, one of the great discoveries of the night was the comely Milica Ilic as Barbarina, singing with great confidence and making her small part very memorable.
Mozart asks them to do little, but the Opera Queensland chorus did that little very well.
It was also a nice change to hear the opera sung in English, with a good translation of the libretto which the singers enunciated well.
Joining the dots was the ABC’s Christopher Lawrence as narrator, and I must say this was the best linking narration to a musical performance I’ve heard. With the recitatives stripped out of the production, Lawrence as MC eschewed the usual ponderous plot descriptions and with wit and irreverence introduced arias with as much as was needed to tell the audience what was happening.
And he raised quite a few laughs. The upstairs-downstairs shenanigans of the opera were linked to the current woes of David Jones’ former chief executive, while the Mexican Lawrence had even boned up on local knowledge. The count’s garden, he declared, was far too small he had seen bigger ones in Kenmore. This one, he opined, was only as big as an Ascot ensuite!
It was all good fun, with a production that could be greatly enjoyed and appreciated by opera tragics as well as novices to the great art.