Opera North, 2015
Alexander Shelley, Jo Davies, Richard Burkhard, Silvia Moi, Quirijn de Lang, Ana Maria Labin, Helen Sherman, Henry Waddington, Joseph Shovelton, Gaynor Keeble, Jeremy Peaker, Ellie Laugharne, Nicholas Watts
Grand Opera House, Belfast - 19 March 2015
Opera North's acclaimed production of The Marriage of Figaro arrived in Belfast with a string of plaudits from the earlier stages of its tour. While the praise is deserved, most of it must be attributed to the work itself, which shows Mozart at his most brilliant and still pretty much untouchable in the comic opera genre. Coming after some rather more impactful productions by NI Opera however, Opera North's Le Nozze di Figaro couldn't help but feel a little tame and unadventurous in comparison.
Whether it was a conscious decision or not, this production felt very 'English'. It was sung in English, which is never the best way to hear a work filled with arias that everyone knows in the original Italian. You feel a little cheated when you don't get to hear a 'Porgi, amor', 'Voi che sapete' or 'Sull'aria'. More than that, the characters attitudes, manners and behaviour all came over as rather more cool and restrained than their usual hot-blooded continental Spanish counterparts singing in Italian. As with the decision to sing it in English, this may well have been the intent, showing universal class issues and character traits in a manner that the audience would more readily recognise.
That is appropriate because Le Nozze di Figaro is indeed all about class, social and gender divisions. Or not so much about their divisions as, in Mozart's enlightened view, their commonalities. It's the divisions that are first marked out, right from Figaro's measurements of the small understairs room that the Count Almaviva has 'generously' given to Figaro and Susanna on the day of their marriage. The servants' place in this world doesn't extend beyond the length of a tape-measure, and Leslie Travers' set designs for Jo Davies production block out that small space on the stage through a clever device of wall panels that close down and open up the stage, depending on the location and the position of the characters.
The location however certainly doesn't feel like a country house outside Seville, and there's not too much fluster or fury in this 'day of madness'. The Count here is, happily, neither a complete buffoon nor a dangerous predator, but characterised much more as Mozart and Da Ponte perhaps intended. Aware of his power and intent on lording it, particularly over women given half a chance, he is on the other hand too proud to be seen to be begging for their favour or forgiveness. He tries to avoid the latter behaviour wherever possible, but the former attitude tends to make this more difficult. It's very much a class and changing times thing, rather like the Strauss's Baron Ochs in the Mozart-influenced plot of Der Rosenkavalier. Almaviva is not the main character, but he is central to the plot and the reaction of all the others towards him, so it's important to establish the precise tone, and between them, Jo Davies and Quirjin de Lang get it absolutely right.
None of the other characters however really seem to feel threatened by Almaviva. True, Figaro takes the fight to him ('Se vuol ballare, signor Contino' or 'I'll lead the dance' as it is here), when he hears that he has intentions on Susanna, but Susanna seems to be more than capable of batting away his wandering hands, and has some female solidarity in this from the Countess, Rosina. Even in the trickiest of situations, doing their best to bluff the Count, you never get the impression however that any of them take him at all seriously or feel that he is any real threat. You get the impression that they're secure enough to know that they can get Equal Opportunities Commission or Dignity in the Workplace onto him if he keeps this nonsense up, when the intention of Mozart was that this is precisely why we need Equal Opportunites!
Opera North's The Marriage of Figaro doesn't really have the edginess of Mozart and Da Ponte's intent, and without that edge and threat the comedy isn't quite as sharp and outrageous as it could be and ought to be. It all moves along smoothly however - a little too smoothly - everything falls into place, and you can't help but admire how well-constructed a work this opera is as a drama and a comedy, and how well characterised it is in the complementary contrasts of its characters. There's nothing out-of-place or strange in the playing out of the set-pieces, but consequently there's nothing here either that will shock or surprise an audience at just how progressive a work Le Nozze di Figaro was and remains, both as a humanist drama and in its musical advancement.
In musical terms it was very well played, conductor Alexander Shelley permitting little variations in pace and emphasis without overemphasis. A little more emphasis might actually have worked to invigorate the production in one or two places, but here the character was on the loving and benevolent nature of the work rather than its revolutionary edge. That matched the singing delivery of the cast, Richard Burkhard an unflappable Figaro, Silvia Moi an assured Susanna. There was a little more fun with the secondary characters (if you can call any of these wonderful creations 'secondary'), with Helen Sherman a vigorous Cherubino, Ana Maria Labin a touching, soulful Countess, and Henry Waddington and Dean Robinson providing great entertainment as Bartolo and Marcellina.