Having previously directed masterful productions of Vaughan Williams’s Riders to the Sea, Henze’s Elegy for Young Lovers, and Britten’s Rape of Lucretia, actress Fiona Shaw has proven beyond any doubt that her dramatic talents extend to a fine sensibility for opera. Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro represents a somewhat different challenge, however, in the convoluted mechanics of its wide swathe of interpersonal relationships as much as its assured place as a popular favourite in the canon. Ms. Shaw’s production for English National Opera—the home of the first two aforementioned productions—admittedly stumbles more than her other efforts, its forced concepts of animalistic masculinity and misogyny occasionally overbearing by contrast to the emotional purity of the music. Nevertheless, much of its action is guided by directorial intelligence and the sure dramatic flair of a habitué of the stage; bolstered by a solid cast, this first revival proved a highly enjoyable, if not exactly flawless, evening.

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The fundamental conceit of the production is a vision of the Count’s estate as an interconnected warren of rooms and passages binding friend and lover, servant and aristocrat necessarily together. Shaw eschews naturalism, envisaging the setting not merely as a series of passages within a great house but as a labyrinthine maze, with the Count holding court as the Minotaur at its centre. Designer Peter McKintosh achieves this by means of a series of stark white walls dividing the larger space into more intimate rooms cleverly cycled through by means of a revolving stage. Animal and hunting motifs abound, thematically appropriate, to be sure, yet to overstated effect; gleaming bovine skulls hang on the wall, Figaro keeps a bear trap in his bedroom, and the sublime quartet in the Act II finale is dragged into a kitchen in which dangling carcasses hang. The set tends to be ugly, the lighting—by Jean Kalman, revived by Mike Gunning—either oppressively dark or else blinding in its reflection off the white surfaces. The set comes into its own in the outdoor garden scene in Act IV, but it often feels artificial and clunky in the earlier acts.

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At the same time, Shaw’s staging does succeed in capturing the bustling dynamic of the house, the chaotic relationships of the Almaviva household deftly revealed through a stage that often seems to be constantly turning, new rooms offering servants ever cleaning or waiting at attention, weaving throughout the halls alongside the principals both of the upstairs and the downstairs set. The whole is infused with energy, the incessant life of the estate and interwoven narratives of its residents continuously on display. It is a trenchant concept, yet it also betrays the production’s foremost weakness. The abiding beauty of Figaro lies in the profound humanity that underpins all its sexual politics, deception, and scheming; in this production, the unceasing motion of the set, which never seems content to sit still in the first two acts, fast becomes a distraction, as do the numerous extras milling about and intruding upon what ought to be private moments. Yes, there are inevitably servants operating behind the scenes in a great house. It does not then follow that the aching introspection of the Countess’s solitary ‘Porgi amor’ needs to be interrupted by extras scrubbing floors in adjacent rooms.

Fortunately, the musical quality of the performance was more than capable of withstanding some visual and thematic over-involvement. Sarah-Jane Brandon was radiant as the Countess, her exquisitely beautiful ‘Dove sono’ the vocal standout of the evening. Looking regal in a long yellow dress, she spun glorious high notes of a golden timbre to match. In the emotive conviction of her singing, one felt all the insecurity and the anguish of this most sympathetic of spurned wives—even if she was forced to deliver her beautiful aria in the kitchen with servants watching idly.

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Just as impressive was the charmingly gangly Cherubino of Samantha Price. She embodied the love-struck teenager credibly and with a perfect knack for comedy. Her singing was superb, bringing spirit to a lovely ‘Non so più’, her added vocal ornamentation immaculately phrased and delightful. ‘Voi che sapete’ was as enchanting as it ought to be, Ms. Shaw’s excellent direction here bringing out the character’s poignant self-consciousness. It was difficult to believe this was Ms. Price’s role debut.

It was clear that the first night audience adored the charming Susanna of soprano Mary Bevan. Ms. Bevan brought sweetness and likeability to the role, her characterisation embodying all that a portrayal of the spirited maid should be. Her singing was a delight, her tone light and clear with the lyricism of her upper register complementing the undeniable charisma of her character. Impressively, this was her role debut as Susanna after singing Barbarina when the production was new in 2011; in truth, there were moments when her voice still felt a little small for the transition. This seemed especially true in the first and second acts, when she was not consistently audible over the Count, Figaro, and the orchestra. Nevertheless, her Letter Duet with Ms. Brandon was winsome and delightful, and there is no denying the beautiful timbre of her voice. She was presented at the end of the performance with the 2014 Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent; she is certainly a singer to watch.

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The assumption of the male leads felt more routine by comparison. David Stout’s Figaro showed more aggression than the character often does, paralleling in many ways the jealous machismo of Benedict Nelson’s Count Almaviva. It was an interesting approach, but one that did the work’s overall charm little favour. Mr. Stout eventually succeeded in proving himself rather more likeable than his master, however, as he should; the scenes in which he stood up to the Count were gripping, another instance both of Ms. Shaw’s knack for drama as well as the generally high acting standard of the cast. Mr. Nelson’s baritone was occasionally wayward and took some time to hit its stride, but once it did he made a threatening and unusually unsympathetic Count.

Lucy Schaufer was a sparkling Marcellina, Martin Lamb and Alan Rhys-Jenkins fine as Antonio and Don Curzio, respectively, and Ellie Laugharne a delightful Barbarina—even if it seemed both tasteless and pointless rendering her ostentatiously drunk. Jonathan Best made an imposing Doctor Bartolo, if his lower register could have used a bit more gravitas in ‘La vendetta’, and Colin Judson impressed with a rich, resonant tenor as a particularly memorable Don Basilio.

All of this was underpinned by the assured playing of the ENO orchestra under conductor Jaime Martin. Vitality and joy were carried through a bounding reading of the score that continued to captivate through every dramatic intricacy of the sinuous plot. The brass deserve special mention, the vivacious flutter of the horns after Mr. Stout’s excellent ‘Aprite un po’ quegli occhi’ delightfully crisp. The glowing redemption that should suffuse the end of Act IV, a shade muted by this production’s particular ending, was best served by the welcome warmth and jubilance the orchestra provided.

Ms. Shaw’s perspicuous sense of interpersonal direction was fine-tuned to perfection in the final scenes, the character relationships finely drawn and the comedy impeccably judged. In many respects, the virtues of the production were shown to best light when met with the least conceptual interference, and the scaled back set design of the garden scene worked well in this regard. The opera’s resolution was unabashedly ambiguous, a fitting end for an evening that was, if far from perfect, capable of both insight and beauty. As our own relationships, perhaps.

3 stars

John E. de Wald

(Production photos by Sarah Lee from the ENO website)

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