Mélange of Musical and Production Styles Finds Unity in Figaro Forever

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Rossini, Mozart, Langer, Figaro ForeverA Trilogy of Operas based on Beaumarchais’ Plays: Welsh National Opera on Tour, Venue Cymru (North Wales Theatre), Llandudno. 8-10.3.2016. (RJF)

WNO Figaro Gets a Divorce. Mark Stone (Count) and Elizabeth Watts (Countess). Photo credit - Richard Hubert Smith  4742
WNO’s Figaro Gets a Divorce Mark Stone (Count) and Elizabeth Watts (Countess)
(c) Richard Hubert Smith

Since he took charge of Welsh National Opera, David Pountney has sought to present seasons of works with a unifying theme, no matter which composer or musical idiom. So it is with this 2016 season as the Company set out its stall in Cardiff before touring. I was privileged to catch up with it at what WNO considers its northern outpost in the Principality, the delightfully elegant resort of Llandudno with its beaches and Ormes. Along with the visiting English enjoying its shops and architectural elegance were many Welsh speakers.

Pountney sought some creative unison by appointing the same set and costume designer for his Figaro trilogy, the former being the nonagenarian Ralph Koltai. He also perhaps hoped for further cohesion of his theme by casting some singers in more than one opera. This was a captivating challenge and appeal for cognoscenti in the audience, as the musical idiom of the last opera was very diverse from what had gone before.

Gioachino Rossini, The Barber of Seville (1816). Sung in English with titles in English and Welsh: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / James Southall (conductor).


Rosina:  Claire Booth
Count Almaviva:  Nico Darmanin
Figaro: Nicholas Lester
Doctor Bartolo: Andrew Shore
Don Basilio: Richard Weigold
Berta: Rosie Hay
Fiorello: Howard Kirk


Director: Sam Brown
Set: Designer: Ralph Koltai
Costumes Designer: Sue Blane
Lighting Designer: Linus Fellbom

Towards the end of Rossini’s contract as Music Director of the Royal Theatres of Naples the impresario Barbaja, who had appointed him to that post, put on a season of his operas in Vienna under the supervision of the composer himself. Whilst in the Austrian Hapsburg capital Rossini went to pay his respects to Beethoven. Somewhat appalled at the squalor in which the great man lived he was somewhat surprised at the advice he was given along the lines that he should only write opera buffa, like his Barber of Seville. Premiered in February 1816 Rossini had written that opera buffa for the Argentine Theatre in Rome and in the meantime had composed another eight further opera seria for Naples at Barbaja’s insistence as well as his his first contracted work also in that genre!

Rossini had had initial problems with staging the work with that title and had to alter it in view of the hostility it engendered among lovers of Paisiello’s earlier work.  Rossini was doubtless aware that in 1786, thirty years before his own opera, the second play in Beaumarchais’ trilogy had been the subject of Mozart’s first collaboration with Da Ponte and is the subject of the second part of this themed season.

The performances of the initial opera in this Figaro trilogy divided the audience between the opera cognoscenti and those who didn’t realise or mind the idiosyncrasies, even idiocies, of the production and laughed often and loudly. Whilst the work is an opera buffa, or comic opera, it should not degenerate into slapstick as this over-the-top production did. It seemed at times the director Sam Brown thought it was Christmas and panto time! Examples included the music master played as a blind man, complete with shades and an electronic guide dog, was a typical variant, but why dress him in orange to look like a clown? Many in the audience failed to appreciate the relevance of his calumny aria being more distracted by the dog. As to Almaviva being given a drum on his back, along with other instruments in the serenade, and later appearing as a boy scout, with a London type bobby on a pedal bike circa 1960 coming to sort out the problem of the disguised Almaviva, it was not comic opera but farce! The splash of bathwater was as all too evident along with wasted budget in the search for relationships of the plots.  Ralph Koltai’s propensity for large moveable flats worked well in the other two operas. However, their constant rotating here became yet another added irritation. In the thirty or so years of the shared production with Opera North of Giles Havergal’s production of this opera, which the latter played again last year, such idiocies are absent whilst artistic cohesion of set and production was being sought.

Meanwhile the musical and sung contributions were more than adequate. On the rostrum James Southall paced his tempi with verve and sympathy and supported his singers well. As Rosina, Claire Booth’s warm soprano coped well with the tessitura of her showcase aria. She also looked most appealing in a negligee with plenty of suspenders and thigh on show in act one, but why white ankle socks and mortar board for Rosina’s music lesson? It was a particular pleasure to hear Dr Bartolo so well sung and portrayed by Andrew Shore. Good as his predecessor’s acting and characterisation were in Giles Havergal’s staging for both WNO and Opera North, his singing voice was past its best, not so with Andrew Shore whose assumption was consummate and matched by his singing and clarity of diction. Nicholas Lester, tall and angular of stature as Figaro, skipped busily as the general fixer, or factotum, doing good justice to his self-advertising aria with characterful singing along with accurate and pleasing tone throughout. As Almaviva tenor Nico Darmanin was tonally a little on the thin side at times. He did not have to include the act two aria that is more often given these days than a decade or so ago. Rosie Hay’s fag smoking hag got her act two aria and sang it extremely well as well as acting her role superbly.

Wolfgang A Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro (1786). Sung in English with titles in English and Welsh: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Lothar Koenigs (conductor).


David Stout
Susanna: Anna Devin
Count Almaviva: Mark Stone
Countess Almaviva: Elizabeth Watts
Cherubino: Naomi O’Connell
Doctor Bartolo: Richard Weigold
Don Basilio/Don Curzio: Alan Oke
Susan Bickley
 Julian Boyce
Rhian Lois


 Tobias Richter
Set Designer:
 Ralph Koltai
Costume Designer:
 Sue Blane
Lighting Designer:
 Linus Fellbom realized on tour by Benjamin Naylor
English translation: Jeremy Sams

If I found some frustrations with the staging on the opening night of this Figaro trilogy, I found little to complain about with this performance of Mozart’s great opera. I have seen many live productions of The Marriage of Figaro, and even more of recorded ones from the various great opera houses of the world and I can think of few that matched this for musical and staged pleasure with Sue Blane’s period costumes a delight, no gimmicks here. In fact, if this had been sung in the original language, Italian, I would have ranked it equal to any I have seen and heard. Much of the pleasure was due to the conducting of Lothar Koenigs, the departing Music Director of WNO. His performance in pacing, nuance and support of his singers was for me a fitting valedictory. I have a niggle about the titles. In Cardiff and Llandudno they were present in both English and Welsh, but not completely:  the introductions, recitatives, to the arias were not given. It is in these that the story often moves on, the arias being the showpieces for the singers. Whilst the words of the male singers were easily heard the enunciation by the sopranos in particular is more problematical in the higher tessitura required in the music.

Koltai’s moving screens were used with sense and to give enlightenment to the action, none more so than in act four that is so often played in semi darkness. All right, there was no summerhouse for the assignations, the players simply moving behind the appropriately moved screens. Add superb sung interpretations from the cast and it is a night for me to remember. If I make choices as to the singers, I must do so in a manner not to demean others by feint praise. The lively and vivaciousness of Anna Devin’s Susanna was matched by Elizabeth Watts’ compassionate portrayal of the abused Countess, her phrasing and vocal performance of the two great arias was superb. She and her maid interacted to give cohesion of acted interpretation rarely seen and which certainly enhanced the performance as a whole. Whilst the Figaro of David Stout needed a little more revolutionary joie de vivre to set before, and discomfort the sardonic, even demonic, Count of Mark Stone – a nasty piece of work who did not deserve his wife’s forgiveness – neither could be faulted in their singing and acted interpretations.

There are more than the two couples in Mozart’s and Da Ponte’s masterful creation and WNO did not desert them in casting. Susan Bickley was a magnificent Marcellina, perhaps putting her former lover in the shade somewhat but importantly, not overwhelming him.  Naomi O’Connell as Cherubini acted well and sang both her arias superbly whilst Rhian Lois was a characterful Barbarina shaping and expressing her act four aria to perfection and acting the role’s demands very convincingly. Older professional Alan Oke was similarly outstanding in his dual roles, a character singing actor to the manner born.

Elena Langer (Libretto by David Pountney), Figaro’s Divorce. Sung in English with titles in English and Welsh: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of Welsh National Opera / Justin Brown (conductor).


Figaro: David Stout
Susanna: Marie Arnet
Count Almaviva:
 Mark Stone
Countess Almaviva:
 Elizabeth Watts
 Naomi O’Connell
The Cherub: Andrew Watts
The Major: Alan Oke
 Susan Bickley
Rhian Lois


 David Pountney
Set Designer: 
Ralph Koltai
Costume Designer:
 Sue Blane
Lighting Designer:
 Lindus Fellbom

There is a saying along the lines of if you cannot beat them then join them. Whilst facing the reality that whilst Beaumarchais wrote a trilogy of plays on the subject of the Almaviva household, Pountney obviously felt that neither of the other generally known efforts at the third in the cycle met his requirements. On that basis he figured if he wanted to complete the job, and his Figaro Forever theme, he would have to do a good bit of it himself. Drawing on all available sources he set out to write his own libretto and commissioned Elena Langer to write the music. A pity that the title mentions divorce, as Figaro doesn’t. Whether he and Susanna get together permanently, or it is merely a postponement, might make another opera?

Unity of purpose and intent can be found in the choice of set and singers, most being continued from the previous night. However, Langer’s musical idiom is utterly different. Whilst one can easily discern a lineage between Mozart’s music in 1786 and Rossini’s in 1816, there is no relationship whatsoever in either of those and Langer’s. The challenge for the singers is significant, whereas in the two earlier works they will pitch on the melody, having only the recits to cope with without that underlying melody. Langer’s music belongs to a totally different idiom. Her music provides a background to sung words. I am no expert on the evolution of classical music in the twentieth century as it passed through the Second Viennese School, atonality and its diversions with the likes of Boulez, which I find, personally, incomprehensible. The sung words seem to have no relationship to this background sound, the singers pitching in Singspiel manner. I have discussed this matter with a renowned singer specialising in such music. He stipulates the importance of having perfect pitch and being able to produce notes in the throat.

The above are personal reactions. As to the performance here, I was astounded how the singers of the night before adapted and coped with the vocal demands and made a comprehensible story come to life aided by Pountney’s direction and Koltai’s set. Outstanding among the sung interpretations were those of Alan Oke as the sadistic major and counter tenor Andrew Watts as the Cherub.

Although there were more empty seats at the performance of this new work than at the two previous evenings, there were not vast acres of emptiness although some departed at the interval. 

Robert J Farr

Earlier review here.

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