Charles Eager reviews Opera North’s Marriage of Figaro: ‘Despite one or two small blemishes this was an evening both moving and hilarious.’
The first blemish tonight was my fault: I forgot my glasses and, with my shortsightedness and seating position, I was in for a night of squinting. (Only after the performance did I notice the rentable binoculars next to my seat!) However, the resulting blur added to the dreamlike quality of Jo Davies’ production, which was noticeable—and greatly enjoyable—in the final of its four acts. I was lucky that this production of Figaro, being in English (in a skilful translation by Jeremy Sams) didn’t use sur-titles on a screen as is common for foreign-language operas. Making this out (and therefore following the plot) would have been impossible!
A welcome feature of this production was that it welcomed the return of some of my favourite Opera North singers, along with some (for me) new discoveries. It was great to see the return of Quirijn de Lang and Máire Flavin as Count and Countess Almaviva. These two were paired as a couple in Opera North’s marvellous The Merry Widow last year (They also put in memorable performances, though not as a couple, in Puts’ Silent Night); I think they are becoming Opera North’s Bogart and Bacall, or Mastroianni and Loren! Quirijn de Lang’s distinctive, rich baritone voice is one of my favourites on the Opera North stage, and his charm and comic abilities (evident here as in The Merry Widow) make him a favourite all round. The always charismatic Máire Flavin knocks “Porgi amor”, one of the opera’s most beautiful arias, out of the park.
I didn’t know the female lead Fflur Wyn, despite her having done work with Opera North in the past; her performance as Susanna was sparkling. I had seen Phillip Rhodes as Marcello in La Bohème a few months ago, and it was good to hear him in this leading role. Each has a rich voice (soprano and baritone respectively) and each gave a witty performance. Jeremy Peaker did a great “Yerkshire” version of the gardener Antonio, and provided many of the best laughs of the night. Antonio’s daughter, Barbarina, was played with great wit by Alexandra Oomens. Though she cuts a small figure, she is huge in radiant stage presence. Mezzo Heather Lowe, who stunned as Sesto in Handel’s Giulio Cesare just a few months ago, played Cherubino with great wit and ability here—like Antonio, receiving many of the night’s biggest laughs.
Although Lowe’s Cherubino was a great clown character, there was one moment which irked me: Cherubino has one of the most charming arias in this opera or in any other, “Voi che sapete”. (Nerds like me might be interested to know that da Ponte’s words to this aria parody or rewrite one of the most famous of Italian poems, “Donne ch’avete intelletto d’amore”, by Dante.) But Lowe’s performance of this was turned into a bit of a joke by way of numerous comical vocal distortions. I am not really sure why; it didn’t really add anything, in my view.
Leslie Travers‘ sets were as imaginative as usual, though on this occasion the whole looked a little bit drab. This was perhaps added to by Gabrielle Dalton‘s generally sober costume design. However, both featured splashes of colour and light on occasion, and the drabness was not noticeable in the final, nighttime act.
The Orchestra were their usual fine selves. The majority of the evening was played flawlessly, with the exception of a moment of questionable tuning in the strings. This was so surprising from this Orchestra that I wonder if it was just my imagination. My delusion or their error, the moment was brief and passed quickly. Antony Hermus‘ witty fortepiano playing was a highlight of the evening.
It was a great shame that, during the final act, the fine orchestral playing was joined by the ringing of someone’s telephone no fewer than four times! By the fourth, the audience was understandably groaning. Praise goes to the musicians for continuing completely unfazed. The opposite of praise goes to the phone-owner who, after the fourth time, finally stepped out of the auditorium heavily, slowly, and loudly.
The best moment of the night is towards the end, when de Lang’s Count begins to sing “Contessa perdono!”, a plea for forgiveness from his wronged wife. She shortly joins in as the aria becomes a beautiful duet. If you watched Amadeus, you might remember Salieri singling out this moment in the opera as particularly wonderful. The orchestral playing and the singing are at their richest here perhaps of the entire night. Moreover, there is a wonderful use, prior to the aria-duet, of a long and powerful silence, which says as much about the sincere repentance of de Lang’s Count as does the music itself. As Debussy said, the music is the silence between the notes.
As always, Opera North’s programme is superb. Stuart Leeks and Anna Picard offer interesting essays on the historical and artistic contexts of Figaro, and Jeremy Sams offers great insights on translating for the practical concerns of the theatre. George Hall‘s ‘Further Reading’ section is well-compiled, selecting a few good works out of a huge number of publications on Mozart and Figaro. His recommendation of the ‘indispensable’ Mozart and the Enlightenment by Nicholas Till has not fallen on deaf ears! The programme has just one or two errors. I am happy to put it on the shelf with my other Opera North programmes, even though the shelf is by now starting to creak.
All in all, this was a fine performance with just a few shortcomings, most of which were not the fault of the performers! It takes a lot to stage and perform something as well-known and classic as Figaro in a distinctive and memorable way. While I am not sure that this production will stand out as particularly exceptional, it is certainly a skilful production, and a greatly enjoyable evening full of music beautifully written and performed.
Figaro plays throughout February at Leeds Grand Theatre, and then tours the North during March. See operanorth.co.uk for dates.
Charles covers culture vulture and music, specialising in classical. He is co-author of Synkronos, published in September 2017.