Thursday 3 November 2011

Balance rather than busyness

The Marriage of Figaro, ENO, Coliseum, London

The Marriage of Figaro’s director Fiona Shaw was on a panel at this weekend’s Battle of Ideas festival, discussing the role of marriage in society. Given the scrutiny to which Mozart and librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte subject marriage in this work – and given Shaw’s intelligent response to this in her production – few people could have been better qualified.

The three principal marriages with which the work deals all cast a very different light on the issue. The Count’s roving eye causes problems in his marriage to the Countess, whose distress was brilliantly captured here by Kate Valentine in the aria ‘Hear my prayer’ (‘Porgi amor’). Figaro and Susanna’s relationship is put under pressure and overanalysed in the build-up to their wedding. And the young Cherubino rather arbitrarily jumps into marriage with keen-but-boring Barbarina, and instantly appears to regret it. Shaw’s production, set around a labyrinthine rotating house in southern Spain and full of bleached animal skulls and languid Spaniards in black, well captures the intense heat of the opera, its obsession with libido; it is a classical work packed with romantic intent.

Though not in modern dress, this feels a very contemporary production, with an intricate but minimal set and artful silhouette projections above the stage. The libretto, translated by Jeremy Sams, is an unashamedly 21st-century version, which works extremely well. The contemporary puns and turns of phrase help grant the performance a groundedness and approachability completely in keeping with the opera’s tone. The line ‘What did you expect: the Spanish Inquisition?’ is little more flippant than much of the original text by Da Ponte, who, in adapting his text from the play by Beaumarchais, deliberately expunged all references to politics. The Marriage of Figaro is absolutely not a commentary on the banking crisis, and is all the better for it.

Shaw’s cast all seem secure in their roles, with Valentine the standout performer as the Countess. Iain Paterson’s Figaro is jovial and confident, and Devon Guthrie’s Susanna equally assured. Roland Wood relishes the lothario aspect to his role as the Count, performing trouserless for a considerable period. And Kathryn Rudge is a model Cherubino, combining sweetness with annoyingness and singing with a disarming, pure tone.

For all the frenetic action of the moving stage, and the potential aggression of the animal skulls, this is still a charmingly light production, with the singers always graceful and elegant in negotiating the complex set. Shaw has not been afraid to put her own thoughts on the table, but the musical performance is strong and clean enough that it can support multiple interpretative ideas on stage, and my overall impression was of balance rather than busyness.

This is Shaw’s first directing of a ‘canonical’ operatic work, her earlier two efforts having been for Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers and Vaughan Williams’ Riders to the Sea. She has approached the task sensibly, without appearing overawed by the magnitude of the work and its reputation. She also clearly has a lot to say, on both marriage and Mozart, and I look forward to her saying more such things in future.

Remaining performances on Thursday 3, Saturday 5 and Thursday 10 November 2011.


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