Music: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
Text: Lorenzo da Ponte, after Beaumarchais’ play
Director: Blanche McIntyre
Conductor: Christopher Stark
Designer: Neil Irish
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
One of the many reasons The Marriage of Figaro is, for many of us, incomparably the greatest of comic operas is that the libretto is based on a great comic play. Thus, whilst there are plenty of farcical situations and business, the characters matter: the Act 2 finale, for instance, a torrent of wonderful melody, is made up of people arguing and expressing conflicting opinions. The downside is that a director has the responsibility of making the singers inhabit the characters – and in English Touring Opera’s enjoyable (and sometimes much more than that) production that doesn’t happen often enough despite the use of Jeremy Sams’ lively, frequently demotic translation. It’s no coincidence that, with some notable exceptions, the recitatives lack the to-and-fro of conversational phrasing, though Hannah Quinn’s harpsichord accompaniment works hard at animating them.
Blanche McIntyre’s workmanlike production is totally straightforward except for an unnecessary, but not obtrusive, framing device. During the overture the cast assembles, some in 18th Century costume, some in modern dress, taking the obligatory selfies. Are we in for a time-travelling production? No, we are just being reminded that these are actors as they change into costume. Thereafter (apart from a brief repeat after the interval) we are safely and very traditionally in 18th Century Spain – Neil Irish’s costumes handsome, his sets predictable, with the necessary provision of doors.
On an unpleasantly humid evening, the production took time to get going: even the orchestra under Christopher Stark had problems of balance. The opening scene between Figaro (Ross Ramgobin) and Susanna his betrothed (Rachel Redmond) passed off satisfactorily without grabbing the attention and it took the arrival of Marcellina and Bartolo to lift the performance. Gaynor Keeble and Omar Ebrahim, luxury casting in the parts, are both first-class: listen to Keeble in Act 4 for an example of how to point a recitative.
There are positives, of course, far more than the negatives, in fact. Ramgobin and Redmond are an engaging couple (as well as engaged). He is always a very likeable performer and, if we might wish for a Figaro more cunning or more politically aware, his bounce and energy count for a lot. After a rather dry and pinched start (at least at York) Redmond sings beautifully, blends perfectly with the Countess and gains in slyness and mischief as the evening wears on.
Dawid Kimberg’s Count gives a splendid account of his Act 3 aria, but doesn’t really register as a character. On the other hand Nadine Benjamin as the Countess, rather pallid at first compared to Susanna (as is so often the case), comes through gloriously with a sumptuous “Dove sono”, preceded by an intense and passionate recitative, and gleefully joins Redmond is running the show in the Act 4 discomfiture of the males.
Katherine Aitken is a remarkably convincing Cherubino and sings well, but the character can be more fun. Not so Don Basilio in John-Colyn Gyeantey’s eccentric performance, all preening self-satisfaction and gleeful gossip.
Unfortunately, the absence of a chorus (not, it must be said, very prominent in The Marriage of Figaro) brings a loss of momentum just when the production is achieving lift-off. The appearance of the village girls, followed by the celebratory dance, is heavily cut and has little impact. Then the early stages of Act 4 are notorious for cuts in many productions and English Touring Opera takes it down to the bone. There is little but recitative before the finale of deception, suspicion, reconciliation and forgiveness takes over – and that is as irresistible as ever!
Touring nationwide | Image: Jane Hobson