The Marriage of Figaro

Wed 8th – Sat 11th February 2012

reviews

Stan Pinsent

at 02:15 on 9th Feb 2012

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On sitting down I silently congratulated myself for wearing a thick leather jacket: as a setting for Mozart’s classic opera, you couldn’t hope for better than St Peter’s chapel. But gosh, it wasn’t half chilly! The atmosphere quickly warmed up, however, as the orchestra sprang into life for the opening score; lively, melodious, and meticulously balanced. It seemed as if the sound was radiating naturally from the earth, or some cunningly concealed bose speakers, rather than from the fiddlers before me. Whatever wobbles we were to witness on stage, the orchestra were as steady as a rock or the entire performance, which was no mean feat.

On came Lucy Cox’s Susanne and George Collins’ Figaro, breaking the operatic ice with a pitch perfect but hushed exchange: Cox’s voice could never be faulted, and her meekness lent itself to her reticent character. Collins was a pleasure to listen to on his own, but couldn’t quite assert himself vocally during Mozart’s thrilling passages of overlapping warble. Next came Johanna Harrison, Patrick Edmod, Sarah Champion, George Coltart and Rosalind West as the Count and Countess, then a whole host of new faces and beautiful voices. Before long, the stage had been graced by a cornucopia of characters, each with a widely varying quality of costume (I swear one of the villagers was wearing cargo trousers with a top hat).

I must confess that at some stages in the performance, between the famous tunes and raunchier dialogue, I started to take more of an interest in the finer details of the production. The whole play was acted out before an impressive mural, but fresh props and tweaks to the lighting gave each act a different location, a new feel. My mind wandered over such relative trivialities, that is, until I was struck by an angel. Or at least I heard a sound that gave me something akin to the ‘Shawshank Redemption’ operatic epiphany, as the Countess’ voice filled the house for the first time. Yes, that noise really was coming from her throat.

From then on, things just got better. Up to and after the half time break, the singers seemed to have started competing, fighting with their voices and urging one another to new, impossible frequencies. Mozart’s comedy took off and, for the most part, was not just understandable but funny, thanks both to good delivery and translation into layman’s English (at one point Figaro vows, in full warble, ‘I’ll put a spanner in the works if I can’). Odd really, since we’re all used to singing along to the odd ‘no no no no no bella’ as if the words were as many notes.

If ever there were a time to give opera a first try, this is it. And for the seasoned opera goers and Mozart lovers; you’re sure to find something you like. Close your eyes at times and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’d been transported to a Viennese opera house, chilled, but nevertheless under the spell of a performance fit for finer surroundings than provincial Oxford.

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Daniel Malcolm

at 10:01 on 9th Feb 2012

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3disagrees

The colourful Count Almaviva didn't quite rescue the marriage of an insipid couple in St. Peter's chapel last night. Like many a church wedding, The Marriage of Figaro seemed much of the time to be going through the motions. For all their earnest traditionalism, their 18th century idiom, and period costumes, St. Peter's College Opera did not consistently revive the frivolity of the frothy original - at least not visually. Mozart's spirit was however called up by the orchestra - inspired by the frenzied precision of their silhouetted conductor, and helped by the booming acoustics of th chapel, the players did energetic justice to Mozart's playful score all night.

The unequal match of sights and sounds is striking even before the performance begins: the nondescript scene-painting of some botched arched-windows does anything but transport you back to Count Almaviva's palace. But if you close your eyes, the vigorous charm of the overture will soon have your mind prancing off to Seville, and before long Tom Jesty's continuo on the harpsichord holds you captive in the 18th century.

Keep your eyes closed for the first scene, however. The awkward Susanna is more impressive vocally than visually. Her perpetually pained, and slightly exasperated expression (worn like a mask for the play's duration) is particularly out of place in the intimate and affectionate opening exchange with her soon-to-be-husband; she never quite becomes animated even when groped by the Count (and seems more concerned about where the table was than with her modesty). The eponymous Figaro is also a bit of a character void; unsure what to do with his hands, he kept clasped them behind his shapeless robe, like an overgrown choir boy (with a good voice).

Fortunately, the young lovers are completely eclipsed by the aristocratic couple. The count is a comic presence even before you see him: "I said my hunting boots you moron" - hunting boots that are in their stride right from the moment he first owns the stage. Given that much of the humour is at his and the lecherous aristocracy's expense; his character carries a lot of the comedy and meaning of the play. Jolly good then that George Coltart has the curl of lip and toss of the head down to a first class t...off. His thunderous violence towards hammers and women dynamise otherwise static but polished choreography.

In fact it is the count's relationships which like streaks of lightening vitalise the opera. The Countess, lamenting the Count's infidelity, gives the only genuinely moving solo of the play, her lip quivering and her vibrato quavering in sympathetic unison, as she lolls in splendidly aristocratic self-pity. And the Count's repeated run-ins with the aptly androgynous, cross-dressing Cherubino, have a comic pattern of their own. As the 'delightful' coincidences and dramatic ironies heap up, the count is able, with the cheeky twinkle in his eye alone, to bring to life the comic parallels.

Throughout the Marriage of Figaro is very metatheatrically self-conscious. Cherubino, who is twice dressed up as a woman, revels in this. He practises a whole ministry of extremely funny (and slightly gangster) walks for his female part. But some of the singers seemed to shy away from the absurdity of the contrived situations - Figaro could learn a few lessons from Luke Skywalker about how to react on discovering who your parents are. Indeed, the melodramatic cameo from the gardener - who bumbles in like an irate porter to express his outrage at the breakage of a flower pot - showed up the understatedness of some of the more major parts.

The supporting actors must be congratulated on almost redeeming the comic black hole at the centre of the production. For at the end of the opera, it is not the count whom we need "forgive and forget" it's Figaro and Susanna. The 'message of universal forgiveness and understanding', which the director takes from the opera, is thus perhaps more 'relevant' than Paola Cuffolo intended. It is a weighty moral indeed for the sudden and comically neat resolution of an opera buffa, even with the help of some of Mozart's most sublime music - beautifully performed (with wonderful contributions from the timpani). And you can't help feeling that the attempt to contrive a serious side to the opera inhibited the very humour that is supposed to tell, the satire of the aristocracy.

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