ENO’s new Marriage of Figaro is a real tonic in these uncertain times  

15/03/2020

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, The Marriage of Figaro: Soloists, Chorus and Orchestra of English National Opera / Kevin John Edusei (conductor). London Coliseum, 14.3.2020. (CC)

ENO’s The Marriage of Figaro (c) Marc Brenner

Production:

Director – Joe Hill-Gibbins
Set designer – Johannes Schütz
Lighting designer – Matthew Richardson
Choreographer – Jenny Ogilvie

Cast:

Figaro – Bažidar Smiljanić
Susanna – Louise Alder
Bartolo – Andrew Shore
Marcellina – Susan Bickley
Cherubino – Hanna Hipp
Count Almaviva – Johnathan McCullough
Don Basilio / Don Curzio – Colin Judson
Countess Almaviva – Elizabeth Watts
Antonio – Clive Bayley
Barbarina – Rowan Pearce

We’re a long way from David McVicar’s well-worn Royal Opera staging here (see my reviews of 2015 and 2019 casts). In comparison to Joe Hill-Gibbins’s minimalist approach, a co-production between ENO and Wuppertal, the McVicar is positively cluttered. Here at St Martin’s Lane, a single white wall with four doors (which can move up and down to reveal different situations and observers) is the mainstay, with effective, strong lighting to reflect the various scenes’ moods from Matthew Richardson, who also conjures strongly suggestive shadows later on.

Hill-Gibbins sees the piece as about a ‘chain of character interactions’. There are two centres: one power (the Count and his droit du seigneur being a prime example), the other sex in all of its forms – romance, love, primal desire. The idea is not as simple as it sounds, given not only the complexities of the plot but also the dramatic tightrope the director has to walk to maintain the underlying drama, project the interpersonal dynamics (including the uncomfortable ones) while not denying the comedic, sometimes slapstick aspects. This in a piece that meditates – albeit very dynamically – on four different ages of couples, from Cherubino/Barbarina through Figaro/Susanna, Count/Countess and Bartolo/Marcellina. And indeed, pardon the pun, the spotlight does move towards these issues remarkably.The revolving sets of Fiona Shaw’s preceding ENO production (review) are gone. Joe Hill-Gibbins made his ENO debut with Adès’s Powder Her Face at Ambika P3 in 2014 (review); with an imagination like this, one looks forward to many more operas in his company.

In fact, the whole evening is a remarkable achievement. As the Overture unfolds, fizzingly and brilliantly performed by the ENO orchestra, characters swiftly move in and out the four doors in true English comedy of manners style. I last encountered Keven John Edusei at a Late Night Prom in 2017 with Chineke! (review); he did not disappoint here, pacing the work brilliantly (hardly a foot wrong, everything felt perfectly natural, the large-scale grasp perfectly in place) and aided by a fabulous harpsichord player in the recitatives. The occasional scrappiness of ensemble between stage and pit sounded to be the result of first night happenstance, very much the exception rather than the rule.

One can imagine, perhaps, how those four doors of the set can be used in a piece all about misdirections and hiding. Cherubino disappears behind a door on a stage on which there is precious little else; we can see what is happening ‘downstairs’ when the doors are winched upwards, allowing the servants to emerge almost as a group character. The choreography is impossibly slick (thanks to Jenny Ogilvie), allowing us to relax and enjoy the complexities.

It is a great cast, and it is well-nigh impossible to isolate anyone for particular praise – which is as it should be. Vocally, there is excellence everywhere. Louise Alder’s Susanna is impeccable, and absolutely gorgeous of voice. She has the lightness for ‘Aprite, presto aprite’ (as it is in the original Italian) and her exchanges with Figaro in the opening scenes were magnificent. Alder has real stage presence – having enjoyed her in multiple performances of Handel before now, it is clear her Mozart, too, shines. Her Figaro, Bažidar Smiljanić, was an unknown quantity to me but excelled both vocally and dramatically. He is a large presence on stage, and handles the comedic situations beautifully and has a perfect vocal staccato.

It is a nice touch to have a convincingly androgynous Cherubino in Hanna Hipp, who must have had a ball, not least with the costumes (a tropical shirt, or lurid lime-green shirt and short trousers). She was a brilliant actress as well as a brilliant singer, her rhythms absolutely spot-on in ‘Non so più’.

The Count, Johnathan McCullough, whose Philadelphia performance of the role was reported on for Seen and Heard International by Bernard Jacobson, was a strong portrayal, his final ‘Contessa, pardono’ infinitely touching. The Countess, Elizabeth Watts, was on top form, her pianissimi in her big scene at the beginning of the second act meltingly beautiful.

Surely it cannot have been intentional to model the looks of Andrew Shore’s Bartolo on Norris Cole from Coronation Street, but the resemblance seems impossible to ignore. Shore, was, of course, impeccably entertaining as always, his timing that of a master. His Marcellina, the equally experienced Susan Bickley, was every inch his equal. There was more than a touch of the East End about Colin Judson’s entertaining Basilio (he took both Basilio and Curzio).

It felt like luxury casting to have the excellent Rowan Pearce as Barbarina, her Pin Aria glistening and true. Pearce has impressed time after time; an ENO Harewood Artist, this is her third production for the company (her Tiny in Paul Bunyan at Alexandra Palace was particularly memorable). If Clive Bayley still seems to depend on a set of stock body postures, he was still convincing as the doddery old sot, Antonio.

Jeremy Sams’s English translation continues to amuse at every turn, with some truly groan-worthy rhymes along the way. This is ENO at its very best, a true company, ensemble performance of Mozart in a thought-provoking yet always entertaining production. Jitters about the rest of the run (and other operas) because of coronavirus notwithstanding, this is an unmissable evening. A real tonic in these uncertain times.

Colin Clarke

For more about ENO click here.

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