United Kingdom Mozart: The Marriage of Figaro, Heritage Opera / Jonathan Ellis (accompanist), Preston Minster, 7.8.2012 (MC)
Libretto by Lorenzo Da Ponte based on the stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais La Folle Journée, ou Le Mariage de Figaro (1784). English translation by Chris Gill; sung in English with electric piano accompaniment.
Figaro: Mark Saberton (baritone)
Susanna: Serenna Wagner (soprano)
Bartolo: John Anthony Cunningham (bass-baritone)
Marcellina: Wendy Sharrock (mezzo-soprano)
Cherubino: Lorna James (soprano)
Count Almaviva: Thomas Eaglen (baritone)
Don Basilio/Don Curzio: Nicholas Sales (tenor)
Countess Rosina Almaviva: Sarah Helsby Hughes (soprano)
Antonio: Matthew Palmer (baritone)
Barbarina: Eleanor Strutt (soprano)
Choreographer: Megan A. Hughes
Costume Designer: Martin Worth
Set Construction: Sean McGrath
Stage Manager: Colin Leppington
Assistant Director: Olivia Soutter
Scenic director: Tom Eaglen
Company Manager: Nick Sales
Musical Director: Chris Gill
Director: Sarah Helsby Hughes
Accompanist: Jonathan Ellis
A couple of months ago at the Semper Opera Dresden in Germany I reported on a production of Don Giovanni by the Dresden State Opera that wasn’t anywhere near as enjoyable as this production of The Marriage of Figaro by Heritage Opera. I shouldn’t be surprised by the quality of any Heritage Opera production as I have seen their last seven productions and they always entertain their audiences royally.
Under Sarah Helsby Hughes’s keen direction and with scenic direction by Tom Eaglen the spare yet imaginatively designed stage at Preston Minster was transformed into Count Almaviva’s palace Aguas Frescas in 18th century Spain near Seville. Persistent in its sexual innuendoes the action takes place in a single day. Everything centres around Count Almaviva, the randy womanising and scheming noble, on the day of the intended marriage between Figaro, the count’s personal valet, and his betrothed Susanna, the countess’s maid.
Much admired baritone Mark Saberton as Figaro had the audience in the palm of his hand. As an actor Saberton’s stage presence is remarkable with the innate ability to deliver a humorous line so adeptly. Figaro’s act 1 aria Non più andrai (No more gallivanting) and from act 4 the aria Aprite un po’ quegli occhi (Open up your eyes) were rendered convincingly and with palpable expression.
Serena Wagner was not available for the last Heritage production of Rigolettoand it was good to have this mainstay back with the company. Wagner played the role of Susanna soft and demure just as I imagine the character to be. Susanna’s aria act 4 Deh, vieni, non tardar, o gioia bella (Come now do not delay, Oh bliss) a love song directed to the Count but intended for Figaro was delivered with unerring expression and delightful control.
Relishing his major role as the philandering and handsome Count Almaviva baritone Thomas Eaglen suitably exuded arrogance and deviousness. If this had been a pantomime as the villain he would have been heartily booed every time he walked on stage. Eaglen gets better and better with each production, his rich low baritone is highly attractive and he holds a note impressively. I have to say that Count Almaviva’s elegant wardrobe throughout was quite spectacular.
Highly convincing as the Countess Rosina Almaviva, soprano Sarah Helsby Hughes looked relaxed and thoroughly at home in the role. Helsby Hughes can certainly sing and the tessitura of her act 2 aria Porgi, amor, qualche ristoro (Grant, love, some comfort) and from act 3 Dove sono i bei momenti (Where are the beautiful moments) fitted her like a glove, with everything agreeably phrased and her voice exhibiting significant warmth.
Soprano Lorna James wore the pants as Cherubino, Count Almaviva’s page and was close to stealing the show. I remember James appearing in Heritage Opera’s Carmen and she is an excellent addition to the cast. Her act 2 canzona (Voi che sapete che cosa è amor (You ladies who know what love is) was sung with real expression. I was struck how easily and powerfully she can project her voice easily filling the Minster with her attractive tones.
In the smaller role of Barbarina (although it contains a fine aria) fledgling soprano Eleanor Strutt performed with real credit. Alone in the Palace garden Barbarina’s act 4 cavatina L’ho perduta, me meschina! (I’ve lost, unhappy me!) was splendidly sung, revealing especially fine diction that carried well through the Minster. Mezzo-soprano Wendy Sharrock showed she was extremely capable as Bartolo’s housekeeper Marcellina.
Nicholas Sales is certainly a good sport as well as a splendid actor and singer. Although the nature of the roles hardly allowed him to display his lyric tenor voice he proved to be an ideal choice for the humorous roles as the camp music teacher Don Basilio dressed in a silver coat with a swan headed cane and also as the dusty, old and decrepit lawyer Don Curzio. A real highlight was the performance of experienced bass-baritone John Anthony Cunningham as Dr. Bartolo a raven haired dandy who carried a golden ball handle cane. This production was Cunningham’s debut for Heritage Opera and his deep resonant timbre really stood out providing a nice tonal mix with the other voices. Some of Bartolo’s subtle yet highly effective hand and body movements and facial expressions were quite superb. I am confident that Cunningham will make a splendid addition to the company. Although in a role that has little time on stage Matthew Palmer playing Susanna’s uncle Antonio, the count’s silly felt-hatted gardener, who had had one too many, made a lot of the character and provided plenty of humour.
Humour is extremely difficult to bring off well and the cast successfully accomplished this while Chris Gill’s English translations of the libretto greatly assisted in creating a cheerful and upbeat mood. Gill’s use of contemporary language often with a brassy Northern England vernacular was cleverly done and proved highly effective. Credit to accompanist Jonathan Ellis who played the electric piano throughout with unfailing enthusiasm. Costume designer Martin Worth, who has worked as assistant
to award winning fashion designer and couturier Alexander McQueen, has begun working with Heritage Opera. The colourful array of period costumes that Worth designed looked quite stunning.
Everything went wonderfully well in this delightful production of The Marriage of Figaro and Heritage Opera go from strength to strength. Next to be staged is Puccini’s La Bohème in autumn of 2012.