Opera Review: The Marriage of Figaro - Welsh National Opera at WMC ✭✭✭½

The Marriage of Figaro 
W A Mozart

Welsh National Opera at WMC

Review by Sebastian Petit  

20th February 2016:This was a curiously schizophrenic evening as the director, Tobias Richter, seemed unable to make up his mind how he wanted to present the opera. The show opened with an extended dumbshow with various key characters lounging around on prop skips while the audience entered. Nobody appeared to be doing anything significant except, possibly, waiting. Finally, as the house lights dipped, Figaro makes a brash entrance through the auditorium in full, traditional period costume. He chases everyone offstage and a front drop descends and, at last, the overture starts. Fortunately, after all this mummery, the ever excellent Lothar Koenigs takes it at a tremendous lick. So much so that one has a slight sense of a man making up for lost time. Happily the WNO orchestra are more than equal to the task and play with both beautiful tone and crisp articulation throughout the evening. For some unknown reason the walkways at the edges of the pit and the acting area downstage of the cloth remained brightly lit throughout the overture as if there had originally been some significant business during this section that the director, having cut it, failed to inform the lighting designer. 

After the overture the curtain rose on an entirely changed set and at least in terms of costume and blocking we appeared to be in a traditional Figaro production. However, the set, designed by the distinguished veteran designer, Ralph Koltai, consisted of two massive panels hung from a hideous gantry that was unmasked in any way and constantly caught the light. These panels, of progressively more unattractive design, were, no doubt, intended to create fluid changes between scenes by opening out and closing down to create large public areas or small intimate spaces. Several factors militated against the success of this well-intentioned concept. Firstly the sheer size of the panels dominates to an uncomfortable degree especially in the early scenes. Secondly, because the areas behind the panels are often lit, one is uncomfortably aware of the scene-movers lurking in wait for the next cue. It is hard to believe that this tawdry setting was the work of one of the great names in theatre design responsible for gorgeous and innovative work with companies including the RSC (a wonderful “Cyrano” with Jacobi particularly lives on in my memory), ENO and the Royal Opera. Worse, the director further undermined the setting by allowing the scene changes effected by crew, dressed in standard blacks and sporting radio headsets, to be “staged” in near full light. The change to the Countess’ rooms felt interminable and was an embarrassment. The members of the crew made several other unlooked for appearances including setting a table, chair and wine for Marcellina’s unjustifiably restored Act IV aria. Even when sung by Susan Bickley, this section holds up the action to a disastrous degree.

Meanwhile, after the overture, the director seemed to have abandoned the initial concept and settled on a fairly traditional Figaro production. Fortunately most of this production was excellent and inestimably aided by Jeremy Sams’ much travelled translation. In my view it is a darker work than Richter allows (there is little sense of a milieu on the brink of a revolutionary precipice here) but much of the comedy was laugh-out-loud funny including a hilarious visual gag with Susannah and her guitar.
In the drama the females are constantly one step ahead of their male counterparts and it was true also of the singing last night. The crowning performance was undoubtedly Elizabeth Watts’ Countess. Now graduated from Susanna in the previous WNO production Watts shows she is fully equal to the promotion in rank crowning her performance with a magnificent “Porgi amor”. She has an equal co-conspirator in Anna Devin’s utterly delightful Susanna. Coming swiftly on the heels of her lovely ROH Nanetta, Devin is carving out a significant career. Her “Deh vieni” was a lovely moment of calm amidst the chaos of the garden scene. Naomi O’Connell is a full toned and hilariously gawky Cherubino perfectly capturing the youth not yet fully in control of his body or libido.

As previously indicated the men were not quite on this level. Best of the bunch was Mark Stone’s handsome Count. He hilariously caught a man entirely used to getting his own way unable to comprehend how people keep running rings round him. His Act III aria was extremely well sung but dramatically there is more to find in this moment of private collapse. David Stout was a hyperactively lively and attractive Figaro but I found the voice a touch on the light side and lacking in the sense of danger that a great Figaro brings to the role. His great moment of private grief in Act IV seemed less harrowing than it should be.

Of the secondary roles, Michael Clifton Thompson stepped ably into the breach for an ailing Alan Oke and Susan Bickley was a formidable Marcellina. For some reason Rhian Lois appeared to have been encouraged to play Barbarina as if her life literally depended on her every line.

As indicated earlier there is a good production here desperately trying to escape a hideous set. Nevertheless, the musical performances, especially those of Watts and Devin, more than make up for the deficiencies


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