English National Opera’s second new production of its autumn season at the London Coliseum is Mozart’s popular comic opera The Marriage Of Figaro, which comes complete with an exciting young cast. Matthew Amer switched his usual theatre-attending pastime for a first night at the opera.
The world of Figaro is a distinctly upstairs-downstairs affair, and as the curtain goes up and out like an expanding television screen, the distinctions couldn’t be made more obvious. Mozart’s famous overture is accompanied by maids plucking geese and servants sweeping feathers in a space backed by a row of beautifully polished bells connected to every room in a vast aristocratic house. The rest of the house, for the first act at least, can be found above the servant’s quarters.
Here we find Figaro, the valet to Count Almaviva, whose jealousy is easily piqued, preparing the room into which he will move with Susanna, his soon-to-be bride. The Count has his own plans for Susanna, which involves reneging on his decision to remove the conjugal rights of the feudal lord. The wedding is set for the following day, but the Count’s interventions, and the arrival of Marcellina with a contract proclaiming that Figaro must pay back the money he owes her or marry her, put some rather large spanners in the works.
This new 1930s-set production for the ENO, staged to mark the 250th anniversary of Mozart’s birth, is shot through with a sense of fun and lightness of touch. Jeremy Sams’s witty English translation of Lorenzo da Ponte’s libretto – which makes the whole production more accessible for newcomers to opera – drew many a titter from the appreciative first night audience, while Yannis Thavoris’s set, though based strongly in reality, uses a trick or two to create a sense of the fantastical about the story of love and crossed wires. The enchantment peaks with a magical pinewood of giant flower stalks, complete with thorns.
Mark Stone is a rakish, strutting Count Almaviva, introduced in jodhpurs with his shirt open to the waist in the classic look of a hunting, aristocratic villain. It is a shame he did not have a moustache to twirl. Jonathan Lemalu’s imposing Figaro is a man used to being in control who, racked with jealousy, loses sight of what is happening around him.
While the plot is forced on by protagonists Susanna (Marie Arnet), Cherubino (Victoria Simmonds) and Countess Almaviva (Lisa Milne, giving a performance that swoops from desperation to hope), the interjection of purely comic characters are never far away. The Act 1 duet between Susanna and Marcellina (Diana Montague) as they politely vie for supremacy is just one of many moments that drew unrestrained laughter from the audience. Stuart Kale’s camp Don Basilio, whose ability to stir could probably only be matched by Delia Smith, would no doubt revel in today’s gossip-obsessed world.
To see the current cast you’ll have to book tickets for a performance before 23 November, as when the show returns to the London Coliseum in January it will be with an entirely new cast and conductor.