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Manchester music reviews

Welsh National Opera - The Marriage of Figaro

The Marriage of Figaro (in Italian) by WNO

Reviewed by Denis Joe February 2012


Of the three operas that Mozart composed to libretti by Lorenzo Da Ponte The Marriage of Figaro is perhaps the most popular. Welsh National Opera presented their latest production of Don Giovani last year and will be presenting Cosi Fan Tutti in the autumn season, later this year. The three operas are recognised as amongst the greatest ever written and The Marriage of Figaro as one of the most perfect operas (see Anthony Negus in WNO programme p.12).


This production was not in the traditional dress, which is disconcerting as the central issue that sets off the story is droit de seigneur (the right of the feudal lord to the first night with a bride). This production sets the opera in Spain in the days of the Republican 1930s. In itself that is not such a big problem as the set design, by Paco Azorin, which was very similar to that used in last year’s production of Katya Kabanova, with exaggeratedly tall doors. Whereas the approach to this sort of set worked well for the Janáček opera, in that it emphasised the increasing existentialist crisis for the heroine, for me the large and open set did not correspond to the intimacy required for this opera, that relies on a lot of informal communication between the characters.


Another drawback was the portrayal of Figaro (the, usually, excellent David Soar). From the outset, when he is alone with the woman he is to marry, Susanna (Elizabeth Watts), Soar’s Figaro comes over as domineering and arrogant. Whilst this may be understandable given his relation to Susanna, it tends to become unrepresentative of the character as the opera goes on. Whilst the traditional portrayal of Figaro is that of a happy-go-lucky and intelligent individual it is tempered with a touch of servility to remind us that we are watching a portrayal of a social underling. So when things seem difficult for Figaro: when the Count tries to force him to marry Marcellina (sung by Sarah Pring) or when, in Act 3, Susanna mistakes Figaro’s affection towards Marcellina, it really is hard to sympathise with Figaro, and it is necessary for the audience to feel some pity for his frustrations. In one particular scene at the end of Act 1 where Figaro teases the page, Cherubino (a wonderful, Jurgita Adamonyté), David Soar plays the scene like Ricky Gervais playing David Brent (admittedly, one of the biggest mysteries for me, is what made The Office such a popular programme).


Full Cast of The Marriage of FigaroThe stage set of Act 2 and Act 3 is further annoying as again the backdrop is large and the stage is sparse meaning that the cast move about as if to fill up the empty space, when standing still and delivering their exchanges or airs would make more sense. Added to that, the is made of distorted reflections. The thinking behind it may well have been to reflect on the rather bemusing class relations of the characters, but it seems cartoonish in places where those reflections distort like a hall of mirrors. The biggest drawback to a reflecting backdrop, particularly one that moves, is that it catches the light and is really annoying for the audience.


Having said that, everything comes together in the final act. Set in a garden (the only scene set outdoors) the backdrop is coloured and moves in to make less space on the stage and create greater intimacy between the character. This whole act is sheer genius and I felt really moved by the singing - it was the first time that everything came together to create beautiful and convincing opera.


The libretto for The Marriage of Figaro is complicated. Basically the servant, Figaro, is to marry his love Susanna but discovers that his master, Count Almaviva, who has renounced the right to ‘the first night’ is planning to take Susanna away with him in order to seduce her. Figaro sets in motion a plan to expose the hypocrisy of his master, who, in turn, discovers an earlier pact between Figaro and Marcellina that came about when the servant borrowed money from housekeeper, promising to marry her if the loan was not paid off, which it had not been.


Although the template for the opera, based on the comedy, La Folle journée ou le marriage de Figaro, by the French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais (one of a trio of plays around the characters, which includes The Barber of Seville and The Guilty Mother which was used as the story for an opera by the 20th Century composer Darius Milhaud), is opera buffa, it is difficultto see it as anything other than serious drama. It does have its comical moments and uses recitatives between airs. There is the use of deception in the plot, though it is less contrived than most, and the deception use by the Count over his plans to seduce Susanna is straightforward denial rather than something more convoluted, so deception is not the central driving force of The Marriage of Figaro.


Under the Austrian monarchy, the comedies of Beaumarchais were banned, seen as products of the Enlightenment. Joseph II had already banned the plays of Beaumarchais from being performed, but they were allowed to be published. When Da Ponte went to offer the opera to the emperor, Joseph reminded him that the comedies of Beaumarchais had been banned. La Ponte replied “Yes sire, but I am writing an opera, not a comedy”, suggesting that the librettist did not see The Marriage of Figaro as opera buffa. Yet whereas death (usually as a sacrifice) was, for the most part, an incident of serious drama and opera, what lends Beaumarchais’ plays and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro their label as serious work was that they were a product of the ideals of the Enlightenment, and whilst comedy was a vehicle to make those points, the response by the monarchies of Europe also suggests that they say little to laugh at.


The Marriage of FigaroThe airs of The Marriage of Figaro are, on the whole, less to do with comedy and contain some of the most wonderful music Mozart ever wrote. Figaro’s aria at the end of Act 1, Non più andraí , is sung to one of the greatest opera tunes ever; so great, that Mozart was to use it again in Don Giovani. David Soar’s rendition was masterful, full of the pomp and self- aggrandisement that the tune demands. Jurgita Adamonyté’s singing is so beautiful and one gets the full pathos and innocence in the first act aria Non so più cosa son, cosa faccio, when he (the boy character is played by a female soprano, which was a tradition at the time when boy castrati were unavailable or unsuited for a role) is telling Susanna how the Count had caught him alone with the gardener's daughter, Barbarina.


The opening aria of Act 2, Porgi amor, where the Countess, aware of Almaviva’s infidelities, prays for her husband’s love. This is sung with such tenderness by Rebecca Evans, one of the great sopranos that WNO is fortunate enough to have singing. Her rendition of Porgi amor is typical of the dramatic ability she brings to her singing. There is nothing pathetic about her style, her down-to-earth approach gives the aria a feeling of realism. The same can be said for her delivery of Dove sono in Act 3.


Whilst I have reservations about the set design and the setting, on the whole this is a wonderful Marriage of Figaro. The change in the running order of some of the airs and recitatives does nothing to undermine the drama and flow and I doubt that you would find a much better production, particularly in the quality of the singers.


That is, perhaps, what has made British opera such a success. Companies such as English National Opera, Opera North, Scottish Opera and Welsh National Opera can draw on some of the greatest singing talents in the world. I think that part of this is to do with the fact that Opera in Britain, unlike France, Germany and Italy, does not have such a long tradition. Singers are more dexterous in their repertoire than one would find in those other countries. But that does not mean that the quality of the voice suffers. Opera and song recital are such demanding arts. I think that there is very little reason to travel throughout the world to see opera. I have experienced some of the greatest productions of Tristan and Isolde, for example, and had no need to travel to Bayreuth (not that I could afford it). Home-grown talent, such as the excellent Anne Evans and John Tomlinson are recognised as world class exponents of the emotional and physical demand that Wagner’s operas make.


The Marriage of Figaro. Archive photo by Bill Cooper.What this production of The Marriage of Figaro brought home was the complexity of the art of opera. When one thinks of the amount, and diversity, of disciplines that opera relies on it is a miracle that any production can work in totality. Not only is there a need for the basic musical score and dramatic libretto. The art of singers, dramatists, choreographers are required for the cast. There is the visual art for set design and the art of direction that brings all these things together.


And technological advancement doesn’t necessarily make things easier. The artists will always push that technology to the extreme. Ironically it was under one of the more reactionary periods of French history, the reign of Louis XIV that saw some of the greatest advancements made in mechanical set design as the megalomaniac, Sun King, demanded more and better representation of himself and his mythological background.


This made great demands on the buildings where operas were performed and under the reign of The Sun King, France led the world in design for opera houses. Louis XIV, himself, signed the Privilège accordé au Sieur Perrin pour l'établissement d'une Académie d'Opéra en musique, et Vers François (for the establishment of an Academy of Opera in music, & French Verse).


Today’s opera houses are masterpieces in themselves, one need only think of the Sydney Opera House or Covent Gardens. The home of WNO, in the Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay, is the most amazing opera house I have been in. The feeling that one gets, by just being in the house, is as inspiring as any Cathedral. The acoustics are as incredible as those of the Nottingham Concert Hall, or Birmingham Concert hall or the Liverpool Philharmonic: Crystal clear! The large seating capacity of 1900, feels as intimate as a chamber music room. Just to be in the house itself is an experience and the amount of people I saw entering the house and being taken back by the whole ambience of the place, is testament to that.


The Millennium Centre that houses the auditorium is truly a sight to behold. No photograph could do justice to the façade where the legend Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen, which means "Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration" and These Stones Horizons Sing, creating two micro poems written by the Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis, are built into the façade of the Centre: The lettering is formed by windows in the upstairs bar areas and are internally illuminated at night. The building was inspired by the Sydney Opera House in order to withstand the harsh weather conditions that come with being so near the sea.


This Spring season tour :

Birmingham Hippodrome             8-10 March
Venue Cymru, Llandudno            15-17 March
Milton Keynes Theatre                  22-24 March
The Mayflower, Southampton   29-31 March
Theatre Royal, Plymouth              3-7 April
The Bristol Hippodrome                                10-14 April
Swansea Grand Theatre                               19-21 April

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