Music: Elena Langer
Libretto and Director: David Pountney
Reviewer: Barbara Michaels
A collaboration between the Russian-born composer Elena Langer and Welsh National Opera’s innovative and artistic (not to mention highly articulate) director David Pountney was always going to be exciting. Figaro Gets a Divorce, conceived by Langer in collaboration with Pountney, is a sequel to The Marriage of Figaro and was first created by the playwright Beaumarchais. Whether inventing and staging a sequel to two operatic favourites first performed over 200years ago is either desirable or advisable is another matter entirely.
The ups and downs in the life of the wily barber Figaro and those in whose lives he interferes are well-known to opera goers and too involved to recap here. Sufficeto say the trilogy presented by WNO in itscurrent season covers them all, leaving at the last viewing – in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, that is – Figaro married to his Susanna and Count Almaviva married to his Rosina (whose love story is chronicled in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville).
The time scale has moved on from the 18th Century to Langer’s setting of Figaro Gets a Divorce in a period of revolution in the ’30s, with the looming presence of the secret police and an aristo’s household fleeing to save their lives. All good stuff dramatically and all the more pity that the opening, which sees Almaviva, sung by Mark Stone, wanted by the secret police, represented in the Gestapo-figure of the Major (Alan Oke who has the formidable task of coping with an “invented” role played out alongside established characters) is lacking in tension, despite heroic efforts by Elizabeth Watts, as Countess Almaviva, whose superb soprano soars to great heights as the action moves into stress mode.
One might argue that this is comedy but suspension of disbelieve is still important and should not be ignored. Langer’s music, performed by the WNO orchestra under the baton of Justin Brown making his debut with this fine orchestra, uses individual instruments in her portrayal throughout and, though a trifle raucous at times, represents the restlessness of the era; it is on stage that the necessary frisson is missing.
Though described as a comedy and indeed the antics of the characters more than justify this description, this opera has dark undertones that come to the fore in Act II. This Figaro, sung with empathy by David Stout, has come a long way from the ebullient character of The Barber of Seville; a subdued and monochrome alter ego. Textual and visual references abound, most obviously in the cabaret scene in which Marie Arnet, as Figaro’s wife Susanna, sings with feeling in a clear soprano. Andrew Watts as Cherubino, owner of a sleazy nightclub, proves himself to be a strong actor as well as asinger.
As in the previous two operas of the trilogy, set designer Ralph Koltai has worked closely with lighting designer Linus Fellborn to achieve an atmospheric setting.
This is a fearless and innovative operatic piece and my feeling is that it can best be approached as such. Indeed, Langer herself said that she set out to:
“Imagine the future lives of these great characters… to see how they might be tested by events,” but that: “All three operas should stand on their own.” I rest my case.
Runs 21,27 February2016 then touring | Image: Jeremy Abrahams