Intimate opera is everywhere nowadays, it seems, usually in versions that adapt and/or abridge much grander sources. While it's an approach that can bring exciting rewards, the more run-of-the-mill attempts can be hard-going. OperaUpClose, for example, created frissons with an Olivier-Award-winning La bohème, but such sensations are conspicuously absent from this new take on Mozart's operatic masterpiece.
What The Marriage of Figaro can boast is a whip-smart English translation by OUC's artistic director Robin Norton-Hale, a clever and surprisingly convincing reduction of the orchestral score by Alex Beetschen for the Kegelstatt-Trio forces of clarinet, viola and piano, and a very nicely pitched account of the title character from Richard Immergluck in a role he shares on other nights with Alistair Sutherland.
The production, though, is a let-down. Director Sarah Tipple seems to have been embarrassed by the shoestring budget at her disposal so has introduced a wheeze to turn grungy costumes and staging to her advantage through the framing device of an itinerant company playing ‘let's make an opera'. During the overture and between acts all the players busy themselves bringing props to and fro as if unloading them from a nearby van – flurries that are supplemented by half-hearted out-of-character snatches of dialogue. It doesn't work for a second.
Well, maybe one. There's a charming moment when Mary-Jane de Havas, who doubles Marcellina and a gender-bending Basilio, has to effect a knowingly fumbled hat-swap in order to share a scene with her other self. But it's the only time the fourth wall is broken with any degree of comfort or confidence.
Based on Beaumarchais' second ‘Figaro' comedy (the first was The Barber of Seville), Le nozze di Figaro demands tight ensemble playing, sharp comic timing and exquisite vocal technique. In a rarefied, class-dominated household that makes Downton Abbey look like a Ken Loach movie, a priapic Count Almaviva demands droit de seigneur of the maid Susanna as she prepares to wed his manservant Figaro. Her husband-to-be, though, has other ideas.
It's typical of the production's slackness that a gag with a bag of dragées soon after the interval led to an hour of sporadic rattling as shoe after shoe scuffed wayward sugared almonds around the stage. As a production point this will doubtless be corrected, but it's a puzzle that it wasn't anticipated and dealt with earlier.
As Immergluck understands, opera in a confined space needs subtle facial acting and delicately shaded vocal work. Some of his colleagues were prone to church-hall semaphoring, although mezzo Felicity Buckland's slinky Cherubino (no boy he!) made a strong impression even if her diction was wanting.
Tom Stoddart cut a fine dash as the Count and Louisa Tee sang the Countess's two great arias, 'Porgi, amor' and 'Dove sono', with good technique but insufficient relaxation. Sarah Minns was a lively Susanna and Henry Grant Kerswell a leonine Bartolo. Even music director Beetschen, whose pianism oozed verve and joy throughout the evening, donned a wig and sang a perfectly serviceable Don Curzio. He shouldn't give up the day job though, because in his own field he's a star in the making.