The first of Mozart’s three collaborations with Lorenzo da Ponte is for many the greatest example of the operatic genre. Le nozze di Figaro’s popularity remains undimmed, judging by the near-full house for Jo Davies’ new production for Opera North, and indeed for any Figaro performance that I have ever attended. The late Sir Colin Davis remarked that whereas directors tended to spoil Don Giovanni, with Figaro “you can’t really go wrong”.

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It seems to me that the principal requirements for a successful Figaro are an impeccably matched ensemble cast of singing actors, a polished production that taps both the fast comedy and the humanity of the piece; and a conductor whose feel for the flow of the music enables him to create the essential synergy. Mozart’s exquisitely wrought score makes a performance of Figaro a sublime experience, but it must also be an entertaining one. Otherwise three and a half hours, however sublime, can seem interminable. Jo Davies’ directorial credits for Opera North include a richly comic Ruddigore with heady Victorian Gothic overtones. Therefore, it was quite reasonable to anticipate that her new Figaro would be especially strong on humour.

Together with set designer Leslie Travers, Davies signposts the element of farce from the outset. The curtain rises during the feverishly busy overture (conducted with tremendous zest by Alexander Shelley) to reveal what at first sight looks like backstage during a performance of Noises Off – the backside of a scenery flat with four doors. The four main protagonists repeatedly appear and disappear through the four doors in the best traditions of a Whitehall farce. Consequently, the scene is effectively set for the hilarious goings on in Act I; in which Cherubino is attempting to hide from Count Almaviva, who (whilst attempting to seduce Susanna) is himself obliged to hide from Don Basilio. This complex scene was carried off with faultless timing.

A towering return staircase with decorative black bannisters, together with three sets of very grand Georgian style French windows, form the focal point of Travers’ flexible scenery. The windows are movable either as a single unit backing the Countess’ bedroom in Act II, or as a group positioned one behind the other in Act IV, forming a suitably festive processional walkway for Figaro and his bride. I particularly liked the depiction of the Count’s study within his Grand Hall in Act III, with the French windows facing downstage; the rain visibly streaming down the window panes, and the impression of condensation inside. You do get the sense of activity both indoor and outdoors in this production as characters come in and out, opening or closing their umbrellas. These points illustrate Davies’ genius for creating interesting detail. Everything adds up to a production that grabs and retains the attention for the entire evening. The imposing ornate gilded dressing table for the Countess gives a feel of elegance and Gabrielle Dalton‘s early 20th century costumes evoke a kind of faded glory. Peeling wallpaper and crumbling woodwork at the top of the huge staircase reinforces the impression that the Almaviva household is somehow representative of the “squeezed upper” – to adapt present day political parlance. The staircase is open underneath to provide concealment for the various assignations and disguises in Act IV. This scene, aided by James Farncombe‘s shadowy lighting, really generated a palpable atmosphere of mystery and intrigue. Davies makes this, quite literally, Mozart and da Ponte’s Upstairs Downstairs comedy. But it is this director’s close work with every member of her cast that has created such compelling and naturalistic characterisations. Every single body movement or facial expression is telling; we can truly empathise with these characters and where they are coming from.

Richard Burkhard as Figaro and Silvia Moi as Susanna come across as a likeable and engaging partnership of equals in wit, guile and cunning. Even their silences and exchanged glances are laden with suggestion. Burkhard brings rich sonority and colour to his arias. Changes of mood from comic to determination and anxiety are carefully nuanced in his Act I “Se vuol ballare” Quirijn de Lang’s testosterone-oozing Count Almaviva is presented here as a randy country squire. He doesn’t really try to be likeable – except, of course, to Susanna. Lang has a magnetic presence and the mahogany-toned voice, although relatively light in size, is focused and used to compelling effect in the wonderful duet “Crudel, perchè finora” with Moi’s Susanna. Moi’s Act IV “Deh, vieni non tardar” was a beautifully controlled expression of anticipation and delight. Ana Maria Labin gives a poised performance as Countess Almaviva; “Porgi, amor” was delicately coloured with longing and regret. Following Labin’s sad and wistful account of “Dove sono”, the letter duet with Susanna was enchanting, the two voices beautifully melding. The Countess had revealed an impish sense of fun in her Act II scene with Susanna and Cherubino. The pageboy with the permanent erection (if I may put it thus) is exuberantly portrayed by Helen Sherman. The young mezzo exudes the required adolescent ardour in Cherubino’s aria “Non so più”.

Gaynor Keeble as Marcellina and Henry Waddington as Doctor Bartolo make an incisive comedy double act. Keeble’s first entrance as the good doctor’s harridan of a housekeeper in full white wedding gown with towering headdress and wielding an umbrella is a hoot. The fulsome-voiced Waddington is marvellous; he crystallises every single syllable in his rapid patter vengeance aria. Joseph Shovelton creates a slippery and repellent Don Basilio; Jeremy Peaker gives a genuinely funny performance as the gardener Antonio whose mouth is inseparable from his pipe. Barbarina’s lovely aria is sung with intelligence and warmth by Ellie Laugharne. Davies has given the notary Don Curzio sung by Nicholas Watts a novel and eyecatching new guise as a fully robed Orthodox priest – complete with burning incense.

Jeremy Sams’ witty English translation is now amazingly 25 years old and he is “still tinkering with it” (Sams’ words). This talented cast make the text sound as fresh as in year one – not a single word is thrown away.

Alexander Shelley breathes fire into this inspired score at the appropriate moments. The overture crackles with energy; the inventive Act II finale is paced to perfection and the excellent balance between the pit and stage enables the singers to project the text to the very top of the house. Shelley’s burgeoning international career to date has focused on the concert hall more than the opera house. It is clear that he gives as much attention to the projection of instrumental “voices” in the orchestra as he does to the human voices on stage. The nuances of Mozart’s resourceful writing for the woodwind and brass could have scarcely been more lovingly shaped by the Orchestra of Opera North than under the baton of this conductor.

Opera North have given their audience a heartwarming treat for the New Year with this brilliant and highly entertaining new production. The Marriage of Figaro continues in repertoire at Leeds Grand and then tours to Newcastle, Salford, Belfast and Nottingham – don’t miss it!

5 stars

Geoffrey Mogridge

(Photo : Clive Barda)

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