A life-affirming Figaro from Royal Academy Opera

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Mozart, Le nozze di Figaro: Soloists, Chorus, Royal Academy Sinfonia / Alice Farnham (conductor). Susie Sainsbury Theatre, Royal Academy of Music, London, 21.3.2023. (MB)

Vitor Bispo (Count) and Luiza Willert (Susanna) © Craig Fuller

Director – Stephen Medcalf
Designer – Jamie Vartan
Lighting designer –  Simon Corder

Count Almaviva – Vitor Bispo
Countess Almaviva – Madison Horman
Susanna – Luiza Willert
Figaro – Michael Ronan
Cherubino – Georgia Mae Ellis
Marcellina – Chloe Harris
Bartolo – Wonsick Oh
Basilio – Magnus Walker
Don Curzio – George Curnow
Antonio – Oleksandr Ilvakhin
Barbarina – Clara Onif
Two Bridesmaids – Cerys MacAllister, Clover Kayne

The first day of Spring brought the welcome sight of daffodils in Regent’s Park, followed a few yards away by the recurring epiphany that is The Marriage of Figaro at the Royal Academy of Music. Our world may still be in dire straits, but there was something to lift the mood, as was the performance given by an excellent young cast of singers from Royal Academy Opera in a new production by Stephen Medcalf.

Medcalf lightly updates the action to the mid-twentieth century. Those with superior knowledge of fashions in military uniforms will be able to tell me more precisely when. It does no harm, enables the action still to speak pretty much for itself, and avoids the danger of fetishising eighteenth-century costumes to no particular end. The droit du seigneur might sit a little oddly with that on paper; yet as we all know, powerful male predators reinvent it constantly — and many of the finest Figaro productions have found explicit parallels elsewhere. Here, since the principal difference is of ‘look’, rather than substance, it really need not matter to anyone save the dullest Beckmesser. Where Medcalf particularly scores is in imparting such a fine sense of theatre, and enabling the cast to do likewise. From the very first scene, one sees that Figaro and Susanna have learned to work together, as have the singer-actors portraying them; the drama could barely unfold more naturally as a result. Where it becomes stylised, as in a striking section of slow motion acting during the second-act finale, Medcalf has listened to the score and reacts accordingly, to the benefit of stage and pit alike. Simon Corder’s lighting similarly follows suit — and, on occasion, leads. And in scenes notorious for potential confusion – they are not especially so, yet some directors nonetheless manage to make a pig’s ear of them – Medcalf’s calm yet fond professionalism clarifies rather than obscures. Who is who in the garden during the fourth act is a case in point, though a curmudgeon (who, me?) might ask: without a degree of confusion, would they actually act in that way at all?

Royal Academy Opera’s Le nozze di Figaro © Craig Fuller

Each of the singers had something excellent to contribute. For me, the absolute pick of the bunch was Luiza Willert’s Susanna. She did not put a foot, or pitch a note, wrong; one came to realise quite how much of a lynchpin the role is, and how much the rest of the cast benefited from her spirit, her tirelessness, and her vocal artistry alike. Not that Michael Ronan’s Figaro paled by comparison. Here was a similarly human portrayal, alert to words, music, and gesture, and their alchemic combination. Vitor Bispo’s Count was startlingly good, full of toxic yet alluring masculinity, yet assuredly human nonetheless. His third-act aria was a true highpoint of the evening, recognised by the audience as such. Madison Horman’s Countess offered a lovely ‘Porgi, amor’ in particular; she conducted herself with great dignity throughout. As is so often the case, a small theatre worked wonders in Mozart, enabling us truly to engage with the characters and their interaction. Georgia Mae Ellis as Cherubino responded strongly to the comedy of Medcalf’s direction, as did Magnus Walker as a clerical Basilio. Clara Onif’s cavatina as Barbarina as so often had one wish she had more to sing, but what she did – assured stage presence included – she did very well indeed. There was no weak link, though; a fine company on stage had been created.

Alice Farnham’s conducting was sometimes rather hard-driven, the Overture a case in point. The abruptness of some orchestral phrase-endings also attested to puzzling mannerisms of ‘period’ performance. For the most part, though, Farnham maintained and propelled the flow of action well. There were a few – a few too many – noticeable cases of singers and orchestra falling apart, for a number of bars rather than beats, but rehearsal time is never enough and Farnham always ensured they came back together. Occasional thinness of violin tone was regrettable, but again that was doubtless to be attributed to a way of hearing Mozart that is simply not mine. The Royal Academy Sinfonia otherwise showed much to recommend itself, and will surely have learned much from the experience. Alexsander Ribeiro de Lara’s harpsichord continuo playing was excellent throughout: doing what it should with care and imagination, without narcissistically drawing attention to itself as is far too often the case nowadays. Whatever my misgivings orchestrally, this was a life-affirming Figaro at a time when such is sorely needed.

Mark Berry

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