Monday 16 April 2018

Mozart - The Marriage of Figaro (Wexford, 2018)

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - Le Nozze di Figaro

Irish National Opera, 2018

Peter Whelan, Patrick Mason, Jonathan Lemalu, Tara Erraught, Ben McAteer, Máire Flavin, Aoife Miskelly, Adrian Thompson, Graeme Danby, Suzanne Murphy, Andrew Gavin, John Molloy, Amy Ní Fhearraigh, Catherine Donnelly, Dominica Williams

Irish Chamber Orchestra

National Opera House, Wexford - 13th April 2018

"Ah, when we are not fighting each other for personal interest, every woman will march to the defense ofher fellow woman against ungrateful men who seek wrongly to oppress them".

There's always something truthful, relevant and contemporary to be found in Mozart's operas, particularly his works with Lorenzo Da Ponte, and Marcellina's pronouncement in Act IV of The Marriage of Figaro neatly taps into a certain current social phenomenon that is unlikely to be missed by anyone in the audience, even if it needs reduced to something a little shorter and catchier with a hashtag. The fact that the above line was first uttered in 1786 however also highlights just how long the same struggle has been going on. The Irish National Opera's new production of Le Nozze di Figaro could of course have made a lot more of this in a modernised setting, but for the first night of the first production in Wexford of their inaugural season they instead wisely focus on the other essential elements that demonstrate why this is a masterpiece and why opera is important. And they do it rather well.

The latter question of why opera is important is one that I personally felt it was important to address and I had wondered before the opening night what kind of message the first INO production might set for future direction, standards and overall purpose. Every opera of course has its own needs and requirements, and a stuffy period Marriage of Figaro sung in English with nothing new to add to it might have been deemed a safer bet, but it would surely have sent out entirely the wrong message about the importance and relevance of opera to the lives we lead today. A modern high concept production wouldn't be a good move at this stage either, but director Patrick Mason pitches it right here with a bright fresh update that doesn't set about making a statement of its own. Mozart and Da Ponte's adaptation of Beaumarchais can do that perfectly well on its own in performance, and it was in the fine music and singing here that the production made the necessary impression.

That sense of brightness and freshness is to some extent established by the set design and the lighting, which presents an open space that at any moment can work as an interior, an exterior, or both within the same space. With a small model of the Almaviva estate mansion always present on the stage, and a large portrait of Mozart in the background throughout, it also manages to keep the wider context of the work in the back of the mind without having to be too clever or knowing. Not that you would be unaware of Mozart's hand in the work for one moment when the music is played as well as it is here by the Irish Chamber Orchestra under the direction of Peter Whelan; the composer's character stamped across every single, crisp, elegant and emotionally buoyant note.

The period updating of the production isn't over-emphasised, or at least not in any way that might compromise the nature and intentions of the work, but there is a hint of late sixties/early seventies. Glyndebourne did this too with their 2013 production of Figaro and it's a workable solution to the out-dated (if still very much alive in a new form) droit-de-seigneur tradition that Count Almaviva has every intention of re-establishing for the purposes of his designs on Susanna, his wife's maid who is about to be married to his manservant Figaro. In light of recent controversies of misconduct by men in positions of power, the setting here presents a different picture, even from the superficially similar Glyndebourne production. If the 60s/early 70s play to notions of a 'permissive society', it's one where the playing field is not level and indeed playing the field is not seen on equal terms, rather it's one that just gives men the power to take further advantage of the liberties offered.

There's no need for the production to emphasise that with any placards of banners or hashtag references. The implications that it holds for all women, and not just Susanna, are made clear in the several lovely chorus arrangements of the original work in the songs that Figaro has cleverly organised for the other female servants to sing, illustrating precisely what Marcellina recognises in that quotation from Act IV. There's a need for women to combine their strengths and resources, to recognise who the enemy is and to challenge and resist; and it's not just a protest against all men, but "ungrateful men who seek to wrongfully oppress them". Mozart and Da Ponte's enlightened views, as well as the consequences of such oppression, are insightfully woven into every note and word that make up the fabric of this near-miraculous work.

The production however highlighted what is really essential to get right in Le Nozze di Figaro. You can play and sing every note to perfection, but unless the comedy engages and strikes a chord with the audience, it's all to little avail. This is a work that has to implicate and draw you in, and it's done through the personalities of the wonderfully drawn characters who nonetheless essentially need real people to bring them to life. It's here where Patrick Mason has done the necessary work to make the opera - at full length with all the 'supporting' characters arias included - fairly zip along. There are some broad comic gestures but also subtle ones, all the set-pieces run like clockwork to provide the expected laughs and plot developments, the busy but uncluttered and adaptable sets permitting a wonderful flow and openness that allows us, for example, not only to see Cherubino jump from the Countess's bedroom window, but also make a run for it across the garden below.

And it's not just all about the comedy. It's necessary to strike the right tone for each of the emotionally rich and insightful situations that Mozart assembles. It's here that the benefits of including Marcellina's and Basilio's Act IV arias prove their worth, not just balancing and contrasting the emotional tenor of each adjacent scene, or even just rounding out the characterisation, but showing that there is a human side to each of the characters. The actions (or intentions) of the Count don't just have a consequence for the women that he has set his libidinous sights on, but it has an impact on everyone, on how men and women behave towards one another, on how society views such behaviour and the wider impact that it can have on it. It's even more of a joy to have these usually cut scenes included when you have such good performers in the roles of Basilio (Adrian Thompson), Bartolo (Graeme Danby), the gardener (John Molloy) and Marcellina (Suzanne Murphy). Barberina is another role in the opera that can be undervalued and fail to make an impact, but not when you have a young soprano as talented as Amy Ní Fhearraigh to make something of it and show just how musically and emotionally rich a work Mozart has created down to the finest detail. Ní Fhearraigh has already made a stunning impression in the recent Opera Collective Ireland Owen Wingrave and this performance will only enhance that reputation further.

The performing challenges that the principals in this production have to measure up to however is of another degree altogether, balancing and mixing comedy with pathos in arias, duets and complex ensemble arrangements. It's the Count who has the trickiest role to maintain, keeping on the right side of caricature that can either go the way of pathetic bumbling fool to unsympathetic cheating lecher, neither of which tend towards a convincing redemption. Ben McAteer's Almaviva carried a measure of those characteristics, but - in line with the well-considered period setting - was more of a last-gasp opportunist finding that the times (and women's rights) were fast catching up with his sort. His singing was perfectly measured for technique and character, a perfect foil for whoever he was on stage with at any given moment. The Countess is also a challenging role with some of the key arias in the whole opera, and it in places seemed a little too big a role for Máire Flavin. With some terrific support from the Irish Chamber Orchestra however, those arias sang of all the depth of feeling of all Rosina's emotional turmoil and sadness.

It's great to see Tara Erraught back on home shores, having built up an international career in Munich - where most of her performances broadcast on the internet show the breadth of her experience - as well as (controversially) at Glyndebourne and the Met in New York. This was a wonderfully engaging Susanna that Erraught sung brilliantly but just as importantly brought to life with verve, charm and character. Figaro actually ran the risk of being left as a bystander to all the plots and machinations going on around him, but Jonathan Lemalu exuded a quiet confidence in his performance and characterisation of the former Barber of Seville that made it seem a lot more effortless than it really is. Personally, I find a mezzo-soprano a better fit for Cherubino and was surprised at Aoife Miskelly's high and light lyrical soprano being cast for the role, but her 'Voi che sapete' was wonderful and Miskelly's ability for character role playing was a joy to behold. Irish National Opera's impressive inaugural production sets out with high standards, not least of which is to demonstrate the importance of opera today.

Links: Irish National Opera