So often opera can be static and lumpen, with the singers standing stiffly to address the audience, but not at the English National Opera’s ebullient autumn production of The Marriage Of Figaro.
Renowned actress Fiona Shaw directs again, bringing back an updated version of the critically-acclaimed show she put on here in 2011. And it fizzes with an energy that seems to stem from her directly — at Thursday night’s performance Shaw, dressed in black, was continually bouncing out of her seat in the stalls to skip up and down the aisle. She looked like it was her birthday. And that gleeful, positive spirit surged through both the stars and chorus on-stage as they twirled non-stop through an ingenious rotating set designed by Peter McKintosh. It felt like a tapestry being rapidly unwound, revealing new tableaux and ever-grander rooms within the manor house where the story takes place.
It’s a fluidity that perfectly suits the saucy tale of bed-hopping which takes place on the eve of the wedding of Figaro, man-servant to the covetous Count who is determined to bed Figaro’s fiancée before he has the chance. Shaw employs the breakneck rhythms of classic farce as cross-dressing suitors duck down behind baths and inside wardrobes and chests — at times it feels more like a dance.
And you might think that all the intricately-detailed choreography would be a distraction to the singers but in fact the pace and dynamism lifts their performances, allowing them to have real fun and find huge amounts of comedy among all the notes. Genuinely, this is one of the funniest operas you’ll see, with a very witty translation of Lorenzo Da Ponte’s satirical libretto by Jeremy Sams. At one point someone even sings: “I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition,” which gives you a clue as to where this production is coming from.
It’s quite rare to have five leads with so much shared chemistry and whether that’s from Shaw’s actorly direction or the friendships between the performers themselves, this cast simply clicks. Mary Bevan, who plays Figaro’s put-upon wife-to-be Susanna, was singled out during the curtain call last night and given the Critics’ Circle Award for Exceptional Young Talent, and though she was indeed sparkling, let it be said that this is a true ensemble effort. David Stout as Figaro and Benedict Nelson as the Count bring a wealth of insight to the servant-master relationship, while Sarah Jane Brandon as the Countess and Samantha Price as the horny page-boy Cherubino deliver similarly complex yet fun characterisations.
Though the opera has a light frothy feel, each one of the leads is very solidly sculpted, a tendency that is true of the secondary singers also. Overall it creates a deeper sense of realism within a ridiculous situation, granting the audience a satisfying sense that they are getting a brief peek into a fully-formed world. Oh, and Mozart’s music aint bad either.
The English National Opera’s The Marriage Of Figaro runs at the London Coliseum until 23 November 2014. Tickets £12-£115. Londonist saw this show on a complimentary ticket.